Dark, uncompromising, and unapologetically weird, David Lynch’s Twin Peaks has prophetically returned to television 25 years after its last episode, just as Laura Palmer (or at least a spirit who looks like Palmer) promised to Dale. Well, that gum you like is going to come back in style: Twin Peaks returned to TV on May 21, 2017, with a Lynch-directed 2-part premiere. And yes, it’s as weird as ever.
Well, weirder really: now unrestrained by network standards and fully free to indulge in his strangest desires, the two-part opener is a tantalizing tease to what could unfold in the upcoming episodes. A lot of time is spent in The Black Lodge and many surprising returns from both the living and the dead populate the episode (Laura Palmer being one of them). But let others follow and deconstruct the new series: we are here to praise Lynch’s entire oeuvre, not analyze his latest offering.
Lynch’s entire career has been a series of enigmatic statements on film: from his feature debut Eraserhead that is an extended psychosexual Freudian nightmare committed to celluloid to his last film Inland Empire where he threw every single signature Lynchian theme, recurring motif, stylization, and non-linear narrative trick he could muster into one long masterpiece (and potential feature film swan song), David Lynch has been about exploring a unique mythos and vision of his own creation–and to spectacular success.
Perhaps more than anything, Lynch’s work has been an inspiration for now generations of artists who also seek to follow their own peculiar muse, striving to create the type of crystal-clear, striking visuals and bring dreamlike logic to unnerving stories that this director made a career mapping out. His work is far from mainstream but has seeped into the collective conscious nonetheless; his films are so finely tuned and original that it’s difficult for anyone who doesn’t consider themselves at least semi-serious fans of film to have avoided watching at least a few of his films at this point.
His most enduring popular success–the TV series Twin Peaks–did nothing less than introduce the outre and bizarre to the mainstream. Its cultural influence is difficult to discern even today given the flood of copycats in its wake and the hazy, mystical path through pop culture that it imprinted on and how it would inspire artists in the decades since it first aired.
Perhaps popular “weirder” Netflix-hosted serial programming like Stranger Things wouldn’t exist without Twin Peaks–and I’d posit that a lot of the weirder films and TV shows that have been created since wouldn’t have found the success they have without the Lynch’s groundbreaking work over the decades. Lynch primed the pump in popular culture’s odder inclinations for subsequent work that found an audience that otherwise may never have known they would enjoy such walks on the wilder side.
David Lynch: A Perfect Director
Maybe no other director is able to let their audience know that something is awfully, monstrously amiss better than Lynch. His extreme close-ups of objects, photographs, and parts of the human anatomy carry such portent that the viewer knows–once they intuit Lynch’s visual grammar–means some sort of trouble is associated with it. From solitary ringing phones in empty rooms to mysterious rings and blue roses to lingering shots on both blank and contorted visages, when Lynch wants to imbue a single moment with ominous grave importance, it’s burnt onto the screen–and the audience’s memory–as if issued by a branding iron.
Symbols feature heavily in Lynch’s work–after all, for a symbol-obsessed director, these abstract visual cues carry the weight of the larger, more ambiguous meanings that wind through his work. Curtains, stages, jewelry, smoke, fire, electricity, trains, the woods, cars–are recurring and prominent motifs throughout his filmography, all used as striking, liminal but obscure symbols to the audience that are supposed to mean something. Half of the fun–well, intellectual pleasure–of engaging in Lynch’s work is picking up on these symbols and working out how they function in the narrative you’re watching.
The worlds of David Lynch are both familiar and exasperatingly strange: with all but two of his film set in the US, and many of them evoking on the surface the normalcy of American life–from picturesque small towns (Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet, most notably) to the starry-eyed fantasy worlds of Hollywood and Los Angeles (Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire), from the outset the settings are almost absurd in their normalcy. But it’s his investigation of these seemingly normal places–high schools and downtown strips, the sprawling LA landscape and suburban enclaves–that make his subversions all the more disturbing.
For contrasting example: the world of Eraserhead is disturbing from the outset, as it begins with The Man in the Planet and protagonist Henry Spencer’s head floating in space as a spermatozoa emerges out of his mouth. Immediately, we know that this is indeed a disturbing universe. But Blue Velvet opens with a picturesque survey of a small town, complete with a waving fireman on the back of the local engine and a fatherly figure watering his home’s lawn. But suddenly he’s struck down by a stroke and falls onto his perfectly manicured lawn while his garden hose continues to spray water and a small dog bites at the water stream indifferent to the man that lies unconscious just feet away. Then the camera sinks below the ground and the gristly sound of bugs as they crawl and tunnel in the dirt are seen and heard.
This is the sort of subversion and juxtaposition between the normal and bizarre that his work succeeds in evoking and just why it’s so affecting to his audience. By disturbing the normal and familiar, the grotesque is created; but Lynch continues the same tone whether we’re witnessing either normal or familiar scenes. A conversation between two people in a diner in the middle of the day can carry just as much dread as a mysterious nighttime visit to a bizarre theater. And that’s kind of the point: no space is safe in Lynch’s worlds and no moment cannot suddenly be upturned into a bizarre nightmare. As his filmography went on, Lynch perfected capturing and mixing this difficult balancing act until finally succeeding best at this normalcy/nightmare blend with 2001’s Mulholland Drive.
This creeping familiar unfamiliarity in his work is that, while his films are set in contemporary times, they also somehow seem to be set in the 1950s: the towns of Twin Peaks and Blue Velvet are especially evocative of this wholesome time period in America–which only make the eventual dark elements that consume their storylines a more shocking swerve for the audience to react to.
And in these environs is where Lynch likes to place his more desultory, degenerate elements: rampant violent criminality whose brutal acts and sheer deviance from the placid behaviors of the denizens of his films come across as all the more debauched.
For instance: Frank Booth is a terrifying monster of a man, but to know that he’s just hiding in the shadows of the sunny small town of Lumberton, North Carolina, huffing nitrous oxide, brutalizing a lounge singer whose husband he’s kidnapped, and raging like an uncaged animal, approaches the audience’s own sense of safety they may feel in their own small town–and keeps them riveted to the screen to see how far down the rabbit hole these shadows may lead.
David Lynch: Film by Film
David Lynch–like many great directors–has not been a prolific one: he’s only worked on projects that he could have complete directorial control over and ones that interest him. Given that besides his recent resurrection of Twin Peaks he has retired from filmmaking, we can almost safely say that he has concluded his life’s work–but like the surprise return of Twin Peaks, he may yet surprise audiences yet again one last time. Not that he’s had any trouble surprising audiences before: his entire body of work seems built on surprising, shocking, and catching audiences unaware at what he may depict next in his sinister and twisting narratives.
His first full-length feature film is also his strangest: shot over five or so years in the mid-70’s while Lynch held a tenuous residency at the American Film Institute in LA, this low-budget labor of love signaled a seismic shift in American film. A black-and-white experimental narrative feature, its bizarre, highly stylized world, direction, sound design, and surreal story and visuals grew from a small release in 1977 into a midnight movie staple, turned an eventual profit of $7 million, and brought Lynch to the attention of major Hollywood studios.
Still one of the most bizarre films ever made and nearly impossible to surmise, Eraserhead is not just must-see viewing for Lynch fans but for film fans that wondered where the new surreal movement began in America: it was with this nearly indescribable film that at best could be summarized as every fear of fatherhood come to life.
The Elephant Man
As the story goes, Mel Brooks came out of a screening of Eraserhead, went up to David Lynch, and exclaimed, “You’re a madman and I love you!” Thus Lynch landed the plum gig of directing the film adaptation of the stage play The Elephant Man. A Mel Brooks production, the film tells the story of John Merrick, a horribly disfigured circus performer who is finally treated humanely for the first time in his life after being rescued by Dr. Frederick Treves.
Filmed in the similar black-and-white style of Eraserhead, Lynch shows off his artistic chops with The Elephant Man, providing a moving sense of humanism in every frame while also visually representing the gross deformities with which poor John Merrick was maligned. It’s this film that Lynch proved he wasn’t just a freak show performer himself, capturing incredible performances from Anthony Hopkins as Treves and John Hurt as Merrick and showing both the cruelty and kindness that people are capable of towards the disabled.
Listen: Dune is a great sci-fi film. It’s not the best sci-fi film, but it’s the only David Lynch-directed sci-fi film, and as such it’s fantastic. Taking place in a galaxy far, far away, Dune elucidates the political drama that unfolds between dynasties over the control of a planet known as Dune, which is the only planet in the galaxy that produces the important spice melange that is the most valuable substance in the universe.
It doesn’t lend itself to easy summary, but it’s a fantastically detailed world with great (and unique) visual effects, an epic story, and Lynch favorite Kyle MacLachlan as protagonist Paul Atreides. A gigantic bomb upon release, it’s gained a cult following since and is one of the best sci-fi films ever made (according to this objective writer’s opinion, of course).
Lynch’s second breakthrough came with Blue Velvet and largely codified many themes he would work into his future films and stories for the rest of his career: “A Woman In Trouble.” Taking place in a cozy small town, college student Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) is back home after his father suffers from a stroke. He comes across an ear one day in the middle of a field and before he knows it is independently investigating the mystery, which draws him into a dark world of voyeurism, sex, violence, and secrets he could have never believed existed under the placid surface of his small town.
While initially receiving mixed and sometimes severe criticism, Blue Velvet is now seen as a modern masterpiece and the beginning of Lynch’s status as an American auteur. Famously, writer David Foster Wallace was transfixed upon seeing this film while a grad student in 1986 and later wrote one of the most famous pieces about David Lynch ever that appeared in Premiere magazine in 1996, which all Lynch or Wallace fans should read. Blue Velvet is a brilliant film, of course: it’s maybe the key to all of Lynch’s work that follows afterwards, from cinematographic style to use of symbolism to recurring motifs.
Wild at Heart
What to say about Wild At Heart? This writer doesn’t really like it, although it has its fans. Maybe Lynch’s most overblown film, it’s also a difficult one to sit through, often seeming more like a cartoon than an actual film. Following the violent, surreal misadventures of Sailor (Nicholas Cage) and Lulu (Laura Dern) as they run away from her mother Marietta, who has sent out her lover to find them and a gangster to kill Sailor, in this twisted version of The Wizard of Oz.
It’s Lynchian in maybe the worst way: unrestrained by any normal setting, Wild At Heart instead flies off into a thousand different directions without ever finding one to follow. The characters are shallow, and while the film is technically proficient as usual, there’s also not much to care about in the film. For completists and those studying Lynch’s oeuvre, it’s something to watch; as a piece of entertainment, not so much.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me
Twin Peaks was arguably David Lynch’s most successful work in America: his films were always more well-received in Europe, and indeed eventually he turned to the Continent for funding instead of Hollywood. But Twin Peaks also captured something American audiences will always be a sucker for: wholesome, prosperous American small towns that harbor secrets. All soap operas in this country prey upon this appeal while many American films firmly set themselves in “wacky” small-town settings where loopy goings-ons are detailed.
Said wacky goings-on were the distracted thrust of Twin Peaks that appealed to US TV audiences in the short 15 months the show was on the air and inspired a little flood of “wacky” American towns to appear in primetime (Northern Exposure immediately springs to mind). But–in typical Lynchian tradition–there were the dark, disturbing, supernatural scenes that the show was actually about: long scenes in The Black Lodge where mind-bending dialogue and visuals would occur, or the horrifying Leland/Bob synergy that drove a father to rape and eventually murder his own daughter and later her doppelganger cousin. This writer suspects that the darker elements of the TV series was not really what the US audience liked about Twin Peaks–they liked the weirdo goofy residents, cool jazz soundtrack, and offbeat humor.
David Lynch could never give a damn less what US audiences–or seemingly any audience–cared about, however, and he proved this in the prequel to the series with feature film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, which pretty much disposes of any quirky charms and niceties the series displayed to instead focus on the nightmarish final week of Laura Palmer’s life. And he does so with a ferocity not seen since Blue Velvet.
To call TP:FWwM intense doesn’t do service to its warped malevolence: it’s a study of the degrading psychic and physical forces of multiple levels of corruption and abuse on a young person. From what we learn of Laura Palmer’s extracurricular activities in the Twin Peaks series is one thing–from Jaques simply stating that she was “wild” to her photo advertisement in the back pages of Fleshworld, the audience simply assumes Laura was a prom queen gone bad. But to witness her turbulent life first-hand takes any suggestive innuendo out of the viewer’s mind: she’s a tormented soul who, in an extrasensory sense, knows she’s doomed–and soon.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me has Lynch plunge into the darkest elements the TV series depicted and then goes even further. It’s a stunning film that was much-maligned when first released, with audiences expecting a good concluding chapter instead of a dark precursor to the quirky TV hit. But in hindsight, it’s one of Lynch’s best pictures precisely because he investigated the mystery behind Laura Palmer and the terrifying supernatural forces that surrounded her without having to temper the depiction to fit television’s lukewarm standards.
The first of the final three Lynch films, Lost Highway kicks off his late-stage investigation into the duality of individuals and their personas–a theme that would follow through in his last two films, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, forming a triptych. Lost Highway is about a free jazz saxophonist’s troubled relationship with his wife and him being a potential murderer. It’s also about a young mechanic who gets involved with his gangster boss’s wife, who looks identical to the saxophonist’s murdered wife. It’s also about a mysterious man who can seemingly be in two places at once, and how both the saxophonist and young mechanic may be the same person. It’s a movie about identity, the past, sexual virility, and masculinity.
Lost Highway gets lost in the shuffle of Lynch films for a lot of reasons: it’s a rather confusing story, it’s dark and nearly nihilistic, and it’s difficult to find a copy of it that doesn’t look like shit on-screen in the US market. But it’s one of his most accomplished films, with Lynch playing with visual light-and-dark dynamics like a painter on-screen, while the sexuality depicted is the most explicit (and purposely erotic) that Lynch has ever depicted. It’s also a masterpiece–a misunderstood, underseen masterpiece, which are usually the best kind. If only the American market would put out a high-res transfer on DVD or Blu ray so people could actually see the technical brilliance of the film.
The Straight Story
Stuffed in his identity crisis triptych, David Lynch did the most unexpected thing possible: he made a (Disney-produced) mainstream movie that had nothing stranger than an elderly man man travelling across Iowa to Wisconsin to visit his long-estranged brother who just suffered a stroke by driving his John Deere mower for the entire journey.
Based on a true story, it’s a heartwarming slice-of-life tale; critically popular and fondly remembered, a lot of people would be surprised to find out Lynch would make such a–for lack of a better word–normal movie. Whatever his reasons, it’s revealing enough that Lynch recalls this as his most “experimental” movie, despite being the most straight-forward and standard film of his career. Perhaps from any perspective something else would seems odd–even the everyday.
It’s not uncommon for Mulholland Drive to be listed as Lynch’s masterpiece, and it’s easy to see why: with a healthy budget, solid actors (including Naomi Watts in the starring role), and one of his most enigmatic but intriguing plots, Mulholland Drive is a mystery about (what else?) a woman in trouble and the other woman who sets out to help her. Or is this other woman the reason she’s in trouble? It depends on if you can decode the film: like the blue puzzle box that becomes the transitioning object between Part I and Part II, Mulholland Drive has kept audiences working out just what the film is about and how it all fits together.
At first coming across like a shallow look at a young starlet (Naomi Watts) who’s finding her way to success in Hollywood, Lynch savvily drops surreal, seemingly disconnected storylines throughout the first half of unrelated characters as they go through their own misfortunes before once again turning back to the starlet. She meets an amnesiac woman and together they try to figure out what happened to her before suddenly falling into a sexual relationship with each other. This jarring tonal shift is followed by a midnight visit to a club where a bizarre stage performance affects them both and reveals a key to a blue puzzle box; after turning the key, one of them disappears. And then the film jumps track to an entirely different reality…
Perhaps the most accessible Lynch film for the first-timer, Mulholland Drive is still as bizarre and challenging as any of his other work, but this time Lynch seems exactly sure of where he’s going and what he’s trying to achieve. The result is a puzzling–and sometimes sexy–masterpiece that’s pure Lynch and paradoxically maybe his most “mainstream” movie. Well, outside of the lawnmower one.
Where do you start with Inland Empire? The rabbits? Poland? The mysterious woman that exclaims the actress protagonist’s newest film is about “brutal fucking murder!”? Inland Empire is a very long, very complex film from David Lynch and serves well as his (potential) final film.
Actress Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) finds that she won the lead role in a highly prestigious film, On High in Blue Hills Tomorrow, but before rehearsals start the director warns her and her co-star (Justin Theroux) that the film is considered cursed and that murders surrounded its first attempt at being filmed in the past. From here, Nikki goes through a nightmarish process that represents infidelity, fate, the past, the actor’s process, Hollywood, and alternate personalities.
But who cares about the actual plot when there’s this much going on in one movie, particularly a David Lynch film? For the first time using a digital camera, Lynch felt that he could push the boundaries of narrative more than ever before, mixing in his web-exclusive Rabbits series into the film while also jumping back-and-forth between half a dozen narratives to weave a large, complex, and ultimately abstract story about a Hollywood actress who seems to be unraveling in her latest role.
It’s maybe for die-hard Lynch fans only, or at the very least those that have already watched most of his films and will pick up on the recurring ideas and motifs that he’s playing with in Inland Empire. It’s a twisting, crazy film that gives a Lynch fan the total Lynch experience in one film. For a final film, it’s appropriate; as a Lynch film, it’s the Omega to his Eraserhead Alpha.
Conclusions From Another Place
David Lynch is not a director to be easily understood, which is precisely why he’s so beloved by his fanbase. His films are enigma, art, and discord; his work is of striking visuals and uneasy, untenable fantasies; his entire cinematic project is a mystery that’s waiting to be puzzled over and solved, though he provides no easy answer.
In short, Lynch’s work is one of the unconscious mind that seeps into our consciousness. It’s uncomfortable because he’s such a masterful director that he has somehow tapped into our collective unconscious to create such bold imagery and stories that haunt our dreams and shake our minds. We are but the ultimate puppets to his thinking if we allow ourselves to be.
And this scares people the most, ultimately: that they sometimes unknowingly give themselves over to a stranger–a director, nonetheless–that can uncover dangerous parts of themselves to be vulnerable to. Whether it be in a violent, bizarre, psychological, or sexual nature, to watch Lynch’s films is to submit yourself to his singular ability to warp and play with your nature of normalcy and autonomy. Although his better voices direct him towards a neutral plane, Lynch most effectively works in reflecting the worst of our instincts–and may even hold the power to redirect the viewer to reconsider their own understanding of such baser, primal desires.
It’s not that he’s evil: it’s that he understands we are all ultimately evil and awful underneath the surface that we present to the world. It’s the scariest, most taboo concept about human personas–that we can all be either Agent Cooper or Frank Booth. The most frightening thing is that in Lynch’s purview, we’re both.