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Filmmaker Retrospective: The Illustrative Cinema of David Lynch

22 September 2014 Features, Film Lists by Ethan Levinskas

From the organic mulch mosaics to the dissonant hum of faulty strobe lights, the films of
David Lynch are a collective surreal tapestry of growth and decay, both in nature and in
technology. This language is not without purpose, as Lynchs origins lie in painting.
His first short film, Six Men Getting Sick, was an evocative animated painting produced
during his years at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The expense of making the
film nearly led Lynch to swear off film forever, but a fellow classmate commissioned Lynch
to make another. This convinced Lynch to purchase a Bolex and transition into filmmaking.
Drawing influence from the painter Francis Bacon, Lynchs films are filled with obscurities,
distorted physiology and exaggerated limbs. They find the grace within the texture of muck,
filled with images of estranged body parts and rot. Ears are severed, the skin crawling with
ants; cheeks are triple their size, with warts covering every inch.
When the films take on a sexual tone, this results in phallic and yonic imagery, whether its
the gaping maw of a shattered egg or the piston like movements of sandworms. Lynch has a
respect for the power of sexuality in that it can provide release, but also comes with strings
attached. Many of his works touch upon the anxiety of male sexuality, and the obligation to
both perform and provide.
A champion of the banal, Lynch revels in exploring characters idiosyncrasies, finding beauty
where others might see plainness. He allows even the most insignificant character to fill his

world with their bizarre self-confidence. Some view this as insincere, but Lynchs
embellishments are meant to poke fun at humanitys myopia. They stem from a place of
genuine inspiration. He is not weird for the sake of it. Instead, his films act as a mirror,
revealing our weirdness to ourselves, even in places where we would rather not see it.

Lynch explores a psychological unconscious in his films that would make Carl Jung proud.
Dreams and visions follow their own rules, rarely making logical sense, and yet something
coherent is felt. Characters often reveal themselves by talking about their dreams or visions,
and a unique ambience is established whereby anything is possible. These dreams give his
characters insurmountable joy, crippling fear, and even clues to help solve crimes.
Lynch was able to cultivate prestige in the mainstream despite his films uncompromising
surrealism and baffling narrative structure. Several of his films were up for Academy
Awards, and 1990s Wild at Heart earned Lynch the Palme dOr at Cannes. His later films
saw him mixing the macabre with aesthetics of sixties Americana, a nostalgic ode to the era
he grew up in.
This list seeks to pay tribute to the subconscious madman, the popular surrealist who refused
to compromise his voice a voice so uniquely his that they had to coin the term Lynchian to
refer to works where his influence has been felt.

1. Eraserhead (1977)

Although Lynch has stated that no one has had a completely correct interpretation of the film,
Eraserhead is blatantly part autobiography. After only a year in Pennsylvania, Lynch
reluctantly married his fellow student, Peggy Reavey, after an accidental pregnancy. He
moved them into a cheap home in an area of Philadelphia with high crime and poverty rates.
During the writing of Eraserhead, Lynchs daughter was born with a birth defect clubbed
feet. This mirrors itself in the films plot where the protagonist, Henry Spencer, finds out he is
a father, and his baby turns out to be a strange deformed creature. It is a surrealist horror film
about unexpected pregnancy, and the anxieties that come with the responsibilities. The films
horrific visuals capitalize on Henrys plight, as he is torn between obligation and temptation.
This manifests itself in a cyclic desire, where sex is the cause of both Henrys imprisonment
and the doorway to his freedom. Henry fantasizes of sleeping with his sultry neighbor, but
haunting visions of a woman living inside his radiator also plague him. She has gross,
swollen cheeks, and she dances on a stage as sperm like creatures rain down on her. She
gleefully steps on them as each oozes puss and screams in pain.
In another dream sequence, Henry is decapitated and the alien face of his child replaces it.
Henrys lifeless head falls through a puddle of blood, landing in an industrial wasteland. A
young boy picks it up and takes it to a shop, where it is used to make erasers (thus the name
of the film). In this dream, Henry is a corporate drone, his husk of a head literally being put
on an assembly line to produce a seemingly trivial product.
For each eraser that is made, Henrys head loses a little more mass. This represents the
anxiety of being a provider. Henry has a family to support now, and if we treat this as an

autobiographical film for Lynch, a man who dedicated himself to living the art life, there is
no greater fear than being constricted by a nine to five cubicle.
Made intermittently over the course of five years (1971-1976), Lynch worked odd end jobs
including a paper delivery route in order to raise money for filming. Having a background in
woodwork, Lynch built the sets, sheds, and furniture himself. He even created the strange
deformed baby creature, although he refuses to reveal what it is made from.
The film works excellently as Lynchs debut, introducing us to many motifs and character
archetypes that would become staples in his work.

2. The Elephant Man (1980)

In an unexpected pairing, Mel Brooks enthusiastically let Lynch direct The Elephant Man
after having seen Eraserhead. Based on the real life story of Joseph Merrick, a severely
deformed man, the film intends to move its audience from revulsion and disgust to tender
Merrick, played by John Hurt, is abused by his owner, who uses him as part of a freak
show in London. He takes Merrick to see a surgeon, who upon seeing the abuse inflicted
upon Merrick, takes it upon himself, and the hospital, to care for him.
In spirit, the film is similar to the likes of the Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Beauty and the
Beast. This exhibits a sentimentality seen in only a few of Lynchs works, as we are
concerned less with piecing Merricks journey through surreal imagery, and are more focused
on our sympathy for Merricks plight.
The film fits in stylistically with Lynchs canon. The surreal bookends and the grotesque
makeup for Merricks character seem reminiscent of the Lady in the Radiators facial makeup
from Eraserhead. Although Paramount executives wanted Lynchs surrealist sequences
involving Merricks mother cut, Brooks defended him, and helped to keep the film within
Lynchs vision.
One of the themes of the film is one that permeates most of Lynchs work, the release that
death provides from suffering. The ending achieves a warm catharsis, as Merrick admits that
he has had a good day after having a theatre performance dedicated to him. He thanks the
surgeon for all that he has done for him, before removing his pillows and lying down.
Because of the size of his skull, lying down causes him to asphyxiate, and he is comforted by
a vision of his mother before passing.
The film was nominated for several Academy Awards, however it did not win any. A letter of
protest was sent to the Academy board requesting that the film be given an honorary award
for its make up effects. The Academy refused, but in response, they gave make up artists their
own award category with An American Werewolf in London being the first to win the award
the following year.

The success of the film brought Lynch a lot of attention, and earned him the opportunity to
try his hands at a mainstream blockbuster.
3. Dune (1984)

Much like Hollywood is always looking for the next young adult franchise (Hunger Games,
Divergent), or superhero/comic book franchise (Guardians of the Galaxy), they were, at this
time, riding the high of Star Wars fever. Dune had been in development since the early 70s,
and with Lynch at the helm, the film was finally getting off the ground.
To put this in perspective, Lynch had been offered the opportunity to direct Star Wars
Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, one of the most anticipated sequels of all time, and turned it
down. Yet Lynch had accepted Dune even though he had not read the book or known the
story. This action alone is a testament to Lynchs intentions towards filmmaking.
Nevertheless, Dune became an exercise in settling for Lynch. His intended cut of the film ran
almost three hours, but Universal demanded a standard two-hour cut of the film, which Lynch
was forced to oblige since he did not have final cut.

The film was a commercial failure, bombing at the box office, and receiving unanimously
negative reviews. Lynch blames himself for the films inadequacy, stating, I started selling
out on Dune. Looking back, its no ones fault but my own. Lynch has since distanced
himself from the film, claiming that the studio pressure restricted his artistic control.
On some cuts of Dune, Lynchs name is replaced in the credits with Alan Smithee, a
pseudonym for artists who no longer wish to be associated with a film. Although Lynch may
have compromised his integrity with edits, his influence can still be felt throughout the film.
It is worth a viewing for the exquisite production alone.

A lesson in the victimization of compromise, Dune taught Lynch to never accept film work
without having final cut. This would help him in his creative decisions for his next film,
which went on to become one of his highest regarded.

4. Blue Velvet (1986)

Arguably the quintessential Lynch film, Blue Velvet left a radical imprint on the world.
Starting with a severed ear in the woods, Blue Velvet takes us on a journey of discovery, one
where we might not necessarily like what we find lying beneath the grass. We follow Jeffrey
Beaumont as he returns home from school to visit his father, whos just suffered a stroke.
Taking a short cut to visit his father at the hospital, Jeffrey finds the severed ear. The camera
dives into the center of the ear, representing Jeffrey delving into the belly of the beast, and it
only comes out of the canal after Jeffreys journey is over. This film saw Lynch taking a bite
into neo-noir, a genre he would come back to for the rest of his career.
After Dunes failure, Lynch passed around the script for Blue Velvet, but most major studios
declined it due to its violent and sexual content. Lynch found an independent studio that
agreed to fund the film, but when Lynch asked for final cut, they only agreed on the
conditions that Lynch take a cut from his salary and work with a budget of only six million
dollars. Lynch happily agreed.
The story is one of repression, both in the characters lives, and in the sugarcoated front of
Americana. Its about finding what has always been hidden, both physically, and in the
psyche. An evil lurks beneath the surface, and it invades every facet of a small town. Some

are willfully ignorant of it. Its protected by blue skies, white picket fences, and smiling
But as Lynch once said, I discovered that if one looks a little closer at this beautiful world,
there are always red ants underneath. For the first act of the film, we view the world through
the starry eyes of Jeffrey, as he becomes excited and curious at the prospect of solving a
mystery. The shocking violence that follows is meant to jolt us awake in the same way that it
does Jeffrey.

The film has a pervasive Oedipal complex running throughout. Wide-eyed Jeffrey hides in
the closet as he watches Frank torture Dorothy, a representation of the perspective of children
in cases of domestic violence. Jeffrey is frightened by Franks violence, and yet it invokes
curiosity in Jeffreys budding sexuality, as he desires to possess Dorothy himself. With
Jeffreys interest in Sandy, and the brute, oppressive cage Frank has Dorothy trapped in,
Dorothy becomes forbidden to Jeffrey, the way a mother would be.
Blue Velvet was a massive success, garnering controversy over its depictions of violence and
sexuality. Over time, it has been regarded as an American classic and has subsequently
earned praise on various all time greatest films, including honors from AFI. Lynch was
nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director, but lost to Oliver Stone for Platoon.

5. Wild at Heart (1990)

Violence stokes the tinder of love in Lynchs adaptation of Barry Giffords novel of the same
name. Filmed during the midst of Twin Peaks, his hit television series, Wild At Heart tells the
story of Sailor (Nicholas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern), a couple on the run from Lulas
mother, who is using her mob connections to try and kill Sailor. The film is a jigsaw puzzle
of tones, altogether shockingly violent, sensual, funny, and perverse, occasionally all at the
same time.
Several ideas are touched upon in Wild at Heart without being capitalized on. This may
frustrate many viewers, but in its defense, this subtlety with its themes and ideas make them
more powerful. Sailor and Lula are one collective human, Sailors violent masculinity
contrasted by Lulas feminine sexuality.

They rip down the road in their car, wanting nothing more than the wind in their hair and the
freedom to do what they want. Sailors desire to prove himself as a man, and be a provider
for Lula leads him down a dark path, nearly becoming controlled by the darkness he stands
Aside from Cage and Derns stellar performances, Willem Dafoe deserves a spotlight for his
portrayal of Bobby Peru. Even though the character doesnt appear until the latter half of the
film, Dafoe gives a performance on par with that of Hoppers Frank Booth, and in many
ways, feels like an extension of that same character. While the film received mixed reviews,
it went on to win the Palme dOr at Cannes.


Filmmaker Retrospective: The Illustrative Cinema of David Lynch

6. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)

Gone is the charm of the town we once loved. A prequel to the hit television series, Fire Walk
with Me focuses on the last seven days of Laura Palmers life. The film takes us through the
eyes of Laura Palmer, making the film a bleaker effort than the alluring television show. We
dont have time to spend with all the charismatic townsfolk, and are left to deal only with
Lauras horrifying incest, rape, and murder. What the film loses in not matching with the tone
of the show, it gains in Lynchs stylistic choices.
In a move of obvious symbolism, the films credits open with a shot of TV static. Somebody
smashes the TV with an axe, both noting the transition from series to film, and the transition
from the creative collective of the series to the singular director, Lynch. But its also a hint at
what this film is about in relation to the Black Lodge. Flat screens and surfaces, such as
photographs, paintings, and mirrors are connecting us between one reality and the next,
possibly even other time periods.
Despite taking place in a world filled with backward talking demons and dancing midgets,
Ray Wise and Sheryl Lees performances ground the film in a disturbing reality. Wise
seamlessly transitions between playing the murderous demon and the helpless father. In a
sobering scene, we see Leland, the father, come to the surface, and consciously tell Laura that
he loves her. Likewise, Lee immaculately performs as a girl torn in every direction,
determined to destroy herself before her demons can.

Booed at Cannes, and panned by critics, Fire Walk with Me remains one of Lynchs most
underappreciated films, suffering partly because of the series it was attached to. The fans
arent wrong, they were right to feel betrayed. The film stands on a different set of legs than
the show its intending to support.
An iconic dream sequence that once occupied five minutes of an episode had consumed the
mythology of the show in its finale, and subsequently, its prequel film. The combined
efforts of those working on the TV series peppered Lynchs surrealism throughout the show,
making it more accessible and appealing to a broader fan base. With Fire Walk with Me,
Lynch was out in full force, alienating the portion of its audience that wanted Twin Peaks, not
a Lynch feature.
Still, its a Lynch film through and through. Its a spiritual cousin to Blue Velvet, dealing
mostly with the superficiality of suburbs and the seedy underbelly that creeps behind white
picket fences. Its subversion of the TV show should be viewed as its triumph, not its failure.
Without Laura Palmers voice in the show, we were treated to the delight of Twin Peaks, and
we were equally seduced by it. However, Laura Palmer knew the truth about Twin Peaks
darkness, and Lynch understood that seeing the town through her eyes wouldnt be the same

7. Lost Highway (1997)

Cameras are a frightening technology because they record the truth. This is the driving fear
behind Lost Highway, a fear that Lynch himself shares. As the main character of the film
states, I like to remember things my own way. How I remembered them. Not necessarily the
way they happened. With the modern implosion of camera phones, where essentially
anything can be recorded at any time, its a wonder Lynch doesnt suffer constant panic
Lost Highway follows the story of jazz musician Fred Madison (Bill Pullman). As he and his
wife (Patricia Arquette) silently cope with their crumbling marriage, they begin to receive a
set of tapes of someone invading their home. The tapes get progressively more invasive, until
the final tape shows Fred standing over the dead body of his wife, and he is convicted for her
murder. This is the first forty five minutes of the film, and while its mostly exhausting setup,
it remains some of Lynchs most haunting work.

Following his stint with Twin Peaks material, Lost Highway saw Lynch continue to explore
themes of duality within the self. Pullmans character seemingly transforms into a young auto
mechanic, and Patricia Arquette plays two separate women in equally dangerous situations. It
drops the lighthearted humor seen in Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart for a darker approach
similar to Eraserhead and Fire Walk with Me.
While not achieving the same attention and praise of his other works, Lost Highway is just as
much a Lynchian masterpiece. Following the themes of male anxiety that are prevalent in
Eraserhead, Lost Highway tackles them in a different way. Instead of being about the fear of
male responsibility, Lost Highway is about impotence, and the inability to perform.

8. The Straight Story (1999)

It was with Lynchs next effort that the unthinkable happened. Walt Disney Pictures released
a G-rated David Lynch film. The Straight Story is a caramel candied Lynch film, foregoing
his signature lens and abstract narrative in favor of a simplistic straightforward, heartwarming tale.
It tells the true story of Alvin Straight, an elderly man who rode 240 miles on a John Deere
lawnmower to reach his brother who had recently suffered a stroke. Traveling at only 5 miles
an hour, the journey took over six weeks. The film was shot on the actual route taken by
Alvin Straight and all scenes were shot in chronological order.
Instead of tackling superficiality, and undergrowth, The Straight Story is about family,
forgiveness, and the kindness of strangers. Alvin encounters various obstacles on his journey,
and nearly breaks the lawnmower after falling down a steep hill, but its through the help of
his chance encounters that he is able to finally make it to his brother. Along the way, we learn
of Alvins secrets, a past he has been running from.
Part of the films rich sentimentality comes from the unsaid. Alvin is old, and is spurred to
make the arduous trek due to his brothers brush with mortality. As he travels, Alvin
expresses his desire to do things with his brother that they did as children. At its core, this is a
film about longing to return to innocence, to a time when family was our center. Alvins grief
over his wartime experiences furthers his desire to be rid of their weight, and to have his past
wiped clean.
Lynch refers to the film as his most experimental effort, and rightly so. In the career of a
surrealist, a straightforward narrative would be uncharacteristically experimental. It features
drawn out montages of sprawling fields of corn that slow the films pacing. The length of
Alvins journey is definitely felt, but somehow, this adds to the pictures honesty. The
countryside feels as warm and inviting as the people Alvin connects with.

9. Mulholland Drive (2001)

In the city of dreams, no one is safe from the clouding power of

illusion. With the intent of originally being a TV pilot, Mulholland Drive is Lynchs
attempted return to TV after a decade since Twin Peaks. The film remains one of Lynchs
most honest works, transcending above his murky

explorations of the

Described as a poisonous valentine to Hollywood, Mulholland Drive follows Betty Elms
(Naomi Watts), a doe-eyed aspiring actress who has just arrived in Los Angeles to chase after
her dream. She finds a young woman who calls herself Rita hiding in her new apartment. Rita
suffers from amnesia and cant recall her true identity. They find that Ritas purse contains
over $100,000 and a mysterious blue key.
The network was unhappy with the way the pilot turned out, and decided not to air it. Lynch
rewrote the script with a resolution in order to transform the story into a feature film. The
film takes a shift in the final third of the movie, where the rewritten ending comes into play.
Everything up until this point appears to have been a lie.

This give Mulholland Drive certain layers that may have not been prevalent in the TV version
of the same material. Theres

self-awareness to the story, taking place in

Hollywood. David Lynch, the master of dream cinema, addresses the
clouding, harmful powers that dreams can have on an individual,
specifically within the industry that he works.
Having received critical acclaim upon its premiere at Cannes, the film was picked up by
Universal Pictures and released theatrically. Lynch won Best Director at Cannes and was
nominated for the same award by the Academy. Considered by many to be Lynchs

magnum opus, Mulholland Drive transcended his other works in how widely praised it
was, while still remaining as incoherent and dreamy as his other films.

10. Inland Empire (2006)

Lynchs latest, and potentially last film appropriately sums up his career. At three hours long,
it goes the extra mile to cover all

of Lynchs experimentations, styles, and

themes. Even disregarding the plot and execution, we are revisiting faces in Inland Empire
(Laura Dern, Justin Theroux, Harry Dean Stanton, Laura Harring) whose appearances stretch
across Lynchs career. In true Lynch fashion, however, the film is as incoherent as any of his
other works, behaving more like a spider web of disconnected images and events.
Lynch shot the film without a completed screenplay, handing each actor several freshly
written pages each day. Inland Empire is Lynch working at his most improvisational. And yet
the films story seems to cover similar ground for Lynch. Laura Dern plays an actress in
Hollywood, similar to Watts character in Mulholland Drive.
She discovers an otherworldly demon-like being called The Phantom that hypnotizes its
victims, similar to BOB possessing his victims in Twin Peaks. She even comes into contact
with a doppelganger, continuing themes of duality seen through Lost Highway.

In many ways, Inland Empire feels like Lynchs 8 or his Persona a film dealing with
cinema that seemingly collapses in on itself and breaks any semblance of a fourth wall. Much
like his paintings, its not one thing or the other, but a mosaic of images and emotions. It
would be a sufficient enough bookend to the career of one of the most unique filmmakers of
our time, but I will not attempt to hide my desire for him to make more.


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