Like any meaningful relationship, my love of David Lynch’s work has not always been easy. Lynch’s work can be notoriously difficult to ‘get’ straight away, demanding tireless re-viewings and subsequent reflection in order to unravel the plotlines, and take heed of the clues which point to the larger allusions (I recommend Renegade Cut’s Understanding a David Lynch film for first-timers).
Each unconventional, genre-bending, narrative-twisting endeavour demands a certain level of patience, but once you submit yourself to the journey, it will reveal its rewards. Each film feels like a transcendence into the director’s soul, wrought with themes of duality, hidden worlds, reality and fantasy, fragmented dreams and unsettling nightmares. There is always a mystery to be unpicked and inspiration to be gleaned.
Every film created by Lynch, like all great art, is somewhat governed by the reaction and interpretation derived from its viewers. We are as much a part of each piece as Lynch himself.
Here are my top three, in no particular order:
Eraserhead is still as mind-bending, subversive and utterly disturbing as it was when it was made, nearly four decades ago (and this is coming from someone who, like most film audiences today, has been all but desensitised to contemporary ‘shocking’ cinema in most of its ugly forms).
Its timelessness owes to the fact that Lynch ‘disturbs’ in a different way. You can call it ‘art’ cinema, but really Eraserhead is ‘dream’ cinema, setting the tone for Lynch’s elusive, experimental style, blurring the lines between dreams and reality and confounding audiences in the process. The film is a surrealist, black-and-white, sexually charged and overtly unsettling brain-fuck, following Henry (played devotedly by a horizontal-haired Jack Nance) who resides in a dystopian cityscape, occasionally experiencing visions of a Lady in a Radiator whilst caring for his incessantly crying mutant child. Also, his world may or may not be controlled by a man in space, with levers. As with all Lynch films, it’s near impossible to adequately sum up the plot without sounding like you’ve lost every single one of your dwindling collection of marbles.
Funded mainly by its cast and crew, the AFI and Lynch’s paper-round money (no really…Lynch delivered papers during the day and shot the film at night), Eraserhead took five years to complete. A scene in which Henry enters through a door was superseded by a year-long gap before they could afford to film him coming through the other side. Once finished, it looked doubtful that distribution of the film would be widespread due to its complete bizarreness and marked unmarketability, but eventually it found its home on the midnight movie circuit in NYC, embarking on a slow rise to its ‘cult’ status after playing to empty theatres for some time.
The baron, charcoal-smudged industrial landscape in Eraserhead’s design is a setting that is quite different from Lynch’s later work; the blue-skied, small-town America of his childhood (and its seedy underbelly). Lynch shot Eraserhead while living and raising his first child in a poverty-stricken neighbourhood of Philadelphia, a ‘city full of fear’, and its dark influence on Lynch can be seen and felt in the final, Kafkaesque vision. Out of all of Lynch’s work, Eraserhead feels most akin to his photography and paintings, and comes with a raw, unpolished-ness which is a result of the freedom Lynch had over its shooting, script (or lack of script) and eerie sound design (the latter took a whole year to create, and often includes up to fifteen different sounds played simultaneously using multiple reels).
The experience of watching it will be unsettling, but the meaning to be taken from its many undertones and desire to explore it (and the director) in greater depth will stay with you long after the credits roll.
“This is a movie to surrender yourself to. If you require logic, see something else. Mulholland Drive works directly on the emotions, like music.” – Roger Ebert
Ebert, famously, was not a fan of Lynch’s prior works (his ‘two thumbs down’ review was displayed proudly on some of the posters promoting Lost Highway), but Mulholland Dr. was the film that caused him to ‘forgive’ Lynch for his earlier transgressions, and I do agree with Ebert’s view that Mulholland Dr. is the film that Lynch had been ‘working toward’. It’s his most fully-formed, well-executed vision, balancing mystery with plot with dreaminess most skilfully. It endlessly keeps us guessing, and coming back for further viewings, in order to fit together the pieces of a beautiful, non-sequential puzzle.
The story (which is, once again, difficult to explain) is that of aspiring actress Betty Elms, whom we meet (after some bizarre, high-exposure jitterbugging) as she arrives in LA to pursue her dreams. She’s staying in her aunt’s apartment, where she encounters a mysterious, wide-eyed and rouge-lipped brunette who is suffering from amnesia. Together they embark on a quest to discover the self-named Rita’s true identity and story.
Along the way the girls encounter a bag stuffed with money, a blue key, a film audition, a dead body in a bed, and burgeoning lesbianism (which culminates in an avidly sensual love scene, not to be forgotten). Half way through the story, identities appear to switch, heartbreak and loss is revealed, a cryptic cowboy hints at something else.
Dreams? Illusions? Wish fulfilment? Parallel Universes? It’s really up to us to decide. The turning point in the film, a scene and a song in Club Silencio, has to be one of the eeriest and most powerful sequences ever shot by Lynch, and has stayed in my psyche ever since first viewing. After this point, the dream train de-rails, plucky Betty becomes out-of-luck Diane, and consciousness slowly manifests.
One of Lynch’s favourite films is the glorious Sunset Blvd, and its noir-ish influence is all over Mulholland Dr., colouring its subtexts and style in shadowy tones and faded Hollywood glamour. Both films deal with broken dreams and human putrefaction, the poison of fame in a ‘city of lethal illusions’. But Mulholland Dr. is not homage to Sunset, more of a capturing of its spirit, another chapter in Billy Wilder’s vision, and Hollywood’s murky history.
It’s a film that keeps on giving, with the chance to discover/realize something new with each fresh viewing. You will probably never understand 100% of Mulholland Dr., but as Lynch affirms…’the more unknowable the mystery, the more beautiful it is.’
When deciding on a Top 3, the first two were obvious, even predetermined, but it was difficult for me to choose between Lost Highway and Blue Velvet for the final slot. Lost Highway won by a margin, because it better encapsulates what I love most about Lynch: the way he plays with ‘mystery’. No director does it quite like him, and the film is a perfect illustration of this.
Watching Lost Highway is like going on a wild, sexy ride filled with thrill and uncertainty, creepy chalk-faced men and enigmatic headlights in the dark, remote desert. As the ride goes on it gets faster, crazier, more abstract, as we are plunged deeper into Fred/Pete’s subconscious. Classical noir elements are mixed with contemporary surrealism, although the film is packaged more as a ‘psychological thriller’, using a conception of the ‘psychogenic fugue’ principle at its core.
The first section of the story presents us with a character that is trapped in the confines of mundanity, and the latter is a complete deviation into danger and perversity, with Lynch once again switching identities and letting us come to our own conclusions about the meaning behind what we see on screen, the protagonist’s digressions and latent desires.
Lost Highway sprung from an idea that Lynch had when driving home from shooting the disappointing Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. Lynch collaborated with Barry Gifford (whose novel was the basis for Wild at Heart) on the screenplay and shot the film in 84 days. The film feels less laboured than some of Lynch’s other work as a result, and stylistically, is perhaps a more refined version of the overt trashiness in Wild at Heart’s core, making it all the more alluring.
The styling of Patricia Arquette as Renee/Alice in particular, is, jaw-dropping, who delivers a performance which oozes carnality. The sex in the film (and there is a lot of it) is shot in glorious, unabridged detail, with Lynch’s camera savouring every moment of Arquette’s goddessness. She’s the classic noir femme fatale, slinking about in clingy silk dresses and colossal heels and a doe-eyed expression, only to reveal a darker side and questionable identity later on in the story. She’s the perfect actress for the part, and commands every scene she appears in.
A mixture of industrial rock/D&B from Trent Reznor, Rammstein et al. and the slow, melodic synths synonymous with Lynch’s style from longtime collaborator Angelo Badalamenti for the score is a discordant clash of two worlds, and so matches the story perfectly. The soundtrack is designed to jolt, unsettle and bury us further into the darkness.
‘Freedom from mundanity’ is really the central theme of Lost Highway, and the ‘opposition of the phantasmatic horror of the nightmarish universe and the despair of our drab, alienated daily life of impotence and distrust’ (as summed up perfectly by philosopher Slavoj Žižek), is what Lynch leaves us pondering. Which universe is more horrifying?