To peer into the strangeness of David Lynch’s art is to look into the surreal realm between worlds and perhaps to see our own world clearer…
Driving in the darkness, down the highway with nothing but the broken yellow line changing. You are driving out of this world and into the next. And what is there in the next world? White picket fences, well-manicured lawns, sunshine and happy neighbours in a trustworthy community. A cherry tree. And a severed ear in the grass. Underneath, is the writhing mess of subterranean bugs. On the cherry tree, there’s yellow and black pitch oozing out. This is the abstract way Lynch describes his own childhood—it was ideal in many ways, but there was always something faintly off.
Welcome to the world of David Lynch. This is a world where people can have a banal conversation in a diner and just behind there, if one takes a wrong turn, a monster is there, sitting amid the rubbish. David Lynch is widely regarded as one of the most unique and fascinating directors of modern times. He is well known for his use of transcendental meditation in fuelling his creativity, a technique he began using while creating his first feature-length film, 1977’s Eraserhead. Of all his works, he is best known for the television show Twin Peaks, which he co-created with Mark Frost. Many critics pay less attention to his paintings and music, but taken collectively, this paints a picture of a well-rounded artist who approaches his topics through many forms of media.
Lynch’s second album, titled The Big Dream, goes some way to confirming the belief many have of the dreamlike state present in all his work to various degrees. The presence of the otherworldly ‘Man in the Planet’ and the ‘Lady in the Radiator’ in Eraserhead prove to be forerunners to an expansive pantheon of supernatural beings who bridge the gap between worlds.
Lynch’s close association with the otherworldly began at the outset of his career, before filmmaking had even appeared on the horizon. At the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 1966, Lynch was painting a dark picture of a green garden he described as ‘real dark green coming out of black’. Upon hearing the wind, Lynch saw the illusion of movement in the painting and so, the beginning of Lynch’s focus on filmmaking began. The next year, Lynch’s first film debuted. The result was the highly experimental Six Men Getting Sick (Six Times). 40 seconds long, and costing $200, the film won an award at the Academy’s painting and sculpting contest. It gave Lynch his start and contained many of his unique themes, albeit in miniature.
Lynch followed this experimental short film with the slightly longer The Alphabet in 1968 and The Grandmother in 1970. These three films followed a progression of more thorough narratives told in increasingly longer form. Each film continued to play with and stretch narrative in a variety of different ways, and all are recognisably Lynchian.
Lynch continues to paint unusual dreamscape pictures and obscurely abstract figures. The Unified Field, a book of art released last year, collates a sizeable portion of Lynch’s past work in this medium. Earlier this year, Lynch came to Australia and presented his artwork in an exhibition in Queensland’s Gallery of Modern Art. It was at this recent exhibition that Lynch made a comment that caused great concern: Twin Peaks, his short-lived television drama, may not return after all due to contract negotiations. Since then, the concerns have been resolved and the show will indeed return, only now with a longer series. This will see the series return as Laura Palmer predicted: 25 years later. Filmed in the same town with many of the same actors and crew members returning, the upcoming Twin Peaks third series is the subject of much excitement in its devoted (and patient) fan base.
Twin Peaks—infamous for its confusing narrative style and difficult concepts—is regarded by many to be the crowning glory to Lynch’s long and varied career. It is still upheld as one of the most influential television programs of all time. The long-form style of television drama lends itself to a long and lasting look into the themes at play in any text. Twin Peaks truly provides the deepest and most thorough look into the Lynchian world of his many productions.
Serene and idealistic Middle America has its façade punctured once again as Lynch delves into the social rot beneath the surface. Laura Palmer, a volunteer at Meals on Wheels, is a popular and much-loved member of the community and is the school’s ‘Homecoming Queen’. But after her murder, another side is revealed; she was a mentally ill cocaine addict who became a prostitute after suffering a childhood marred by abuse. She is the very character of Lynchian art with an idealised perfection giving way to a far more confronting and difficult truth.
Much of the mystery in Twin Peaks is unraveled in dream sequences that take place within the Black Lodge, a spiritual place of pure evil. A line can be drawn from the surreal realm of spirits; from the Black Lodge through to the dull everyday life of shifts at coffee shops and days at school and eventually to the rotten and corrupt underside of society. It is Lynch’s style to tie the mystical to the banal and to break down the barriers between these concepts usually kept so separate.
It is clear that Lynch has a distinct style, regardless of the medium he chooses, and this has led to some negative commentary. 1990’s Wild at Heart and 1997’s Lost Highway are Lynch’s least positively reviewed films. Film reviewer Roger Ebert described Wild at Heart as ‘lurid melodrama’ and other critics claimed that he had gone too far into the realm of the evil and corruption, without keeping enough contact with the idyllic façade of Middle America.
Lost Highway received similar criticism with accusations that the particularly unusual narrative ended in ‘Lynch painting himself into a corner’ and that the film was ‘disjointed’. It still carries many of the hallmarks of a Lynch film, despite the criticisms, presenting a peculiar and outlandish world, complete with a supernatural figure of evil presiding over the events of the film. Lost Highway is a highly atmospheric work albeit labyrinthine and confusing. Lynch, in a fashion typical to him, offers little to nothing to the viewer to ease their passage through the obscure narrative.
Perhaps the ultimate in Lynch’s unorthodox narrative style is the last film he made. 2006’s Inland Empire is a three hour long film featuring all the Lynchian staples of normality giving way to a dark, hidden world populated by figures standing on the edge of reality. This latest addition to Lynch’s filmography has been described by one critic as ‘a bucket of Lynchian leftovers, stirred slightly and left to ferment in the dark.’ It has been dubbed as a ‘typical David Lynch fare’ on the review aggregating website Rotten Tomatoes.
It is clear that Inland Empire shares more than the usual collection of Lynchian staples with some of his previous films by focusing on the world of Hollywood like Mulholland Drive and the change and morph of characters as previously depicted in both Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway. It also receives much of the same criticism as the former, being accused of indulgence and of being almost purposefully Lynchian and impenetrable.
Since Inland Empire, Lynch has not returned to the world of cinema, instead focusing on a vast variety of other productions. He has released two music albums, a series of short internet productions including DumbLand (an animated comedy which is crude in nearly every conceivable way; from animation style to the coarseness of its content), and even his own brand of coffee.
It is most likely Blue Velvet for which Lynch is most remembered and celebrated as a filmmaker. Released two years after Dune, perhaps the most notable failure in Lynch’s long artistic career, Blue Velvet has gone on to be listed as the eighth greatest mystery film of all time by the American Film Institute (AFI, the institute from which Lynch got a grant to make The Grandmother).
Like Twin Peaks, Blue Velvet puts that image of Middle America run through with a terrible underworld, at the fore. One must often wonder at what point reality ends and the dreamworld begins. Characters such as the psychotically vicious Frank Booth of this film (celebrated by the AFI as the 36th greatest villain in film history) and Bobby Peru of Wild at Heart lack the supernatural powers of BOB (Twin Peaks) and the Mystery Man (Lost Highway) but appear as such perfect creations of evil and malice that they almost transcend reality. Even without BOB’s power to possess people and the Mystery Man’s ability to be at numerous places at once, they come from a hidden place under the veneer of decency. These villains are grotesque and seem almost unstoppable, thus also tapping into the style of neo-noir films. Jeffrey Beaumont, the protagonist of Blue Velvet (played by Lynch collaborator Kyle McLachlan), remarks that in delving into the mystery, it is like he can see something always hidden. Discovering something hidden is a theme that runs throughout Lynch’s filmography, and into the rest of his art.
Blue Velvet is notable not only as one of the best examples of Lynch’s stylistic choices but also for marking the beginning of many significant collaborations for his career. Angelo Badalamenti makes his debut as a composer to Lynch’s films (a role he would take into Twin Peaks and other collaborations); it also marks Lynch’s first collaboration with Isabella Rossellini (who he would be in a relationship with for five years) and features the return of Kyle McLachlan in a starring role after Lynch’s failed Dune. Blue Velvet, along with Lynch’s feature film debut Eraserhead and Mulholland Drive, remains one of his most celebrated films.
Lynch’s second film, 1980’s The Elephant Man also proved a tremendous critical success for him but bears far fewer of Lynch’s traditional hallmarks. Coming to direct the film from reading its title alone, Lynch took a significant jump in his career to direct and began his long history of awards and nominations. The ‘grotesqueries’ of Joseph Merrick and those of his kind found at the freak shows of Victorian London are no match for the subtler horrors that would be found in later Lynch films. The Elephant Man, thoroughly mainstream by Lynch’s standards, still exhibits the concept of what lies below the surface. Beneath Merrick’s twisted visage, lies an intelligent and kind young man, against whom the truly twisted and grotesque may be judged. If you peer under the surface of Lynch’s Middle America, you will find things of unsettling horror and cruelty. However, if you look under the surface of Merrick’s deformities, you find the most beautiful young man in London.
Lynch has turned his hand to a great many styles of art and every time there has been a common theme. He has always subverted the normal and traditional aspects of whatever art he has been working in and tried to push its boundaries. The conventional is rarely to be found in Lynch’s work, and when it is present, is only there to be deconstructed. Trying to navigate the works of David Lynch is a great challenge, and who knows what is at the end of that navigation, but the journey between this world and the next is certainly worth the ride.
Words by Liam McNally