How do you even being to talk about a filmmaker of David Lynch’s caliber? I suppose one way to start would be that he isn’t just a filmmkaker, he’s an artist and an abstract dreamer as well, who’s films have consistently redefined cinema itself. He’s a master of mood and atmosphere and over the course of a thirty year career he’s made films that are both mind-bendingly surreal and intellectually affecting. And whether it’s the oddball characters, the nightmarish imagery or the uniquely distinctive sound design, you know immediately you’re watching a David Lynch film, when you see one.
Recently, I finally finished watching all his films and I think his filmography is to unique to not be discussed. So this is my best attempt at a David Lynch retrospective.
Most filmmakers are usually trying to find out their style and approach towards filmmaking with their first film, but with Lynch that clearly wasn’t the case, who had a pretty good idea what kind of movies he was going to making for the next thirty years. From the deliberate lighting, to the often, unsettling imagery and straight-up surreal feel of the entire film, Eraserhead was a very promising debut from Lynch and is, to this day, one of the best examples of great filmmaking on a shoe-string budget. But as well-crafted and visually striking as it is, the lack of plot often threatens to bring the movie down, which often feels a tad long, even for it’s 88 minute run-time. That said, it’s a very unique experience you shouldn’t miss out on.
1980: The Elephant Man
I think The Elephant Man holds a slightly strange place in Lynch’s filmography, in the sense that it has a lot of quintessential David Lynch elements to it, whilst also being relatively straight-forward. Upon rewatching it recently though, what really stands-out for me is how elegantly crafted it is. It shows Lynch’s versatility as a filmmaker, and I think he does a great job of bringing a uniquely emotional edge to a story that could just as easily have felt sappy or overdone in the hands of a lesser filmmaker. The performances are also very good. Anne Bancroft, Anthony Hopkins and John Hurt all shine, out of whom Hurt is particularly excellent, as the titular character, buried in an enormity of makeup, and serves as the film’s emotional center.
Probably the worst film in Lynch’s filmography. It’s a little hazy in my mind because I saw it a while back, but I do remember not liking it at all. It’s also probably the second film in Lynch’s filmography (along with The Straight Story) that does not feel like a David Lynch film, whereas the rest all feel distinctly his. From what I do remember of Dune, I found it to be a pretty boring, messy and incoherent film, that didn’t have the most structured story-telling. But I suppose I can forgive Lynch for this misstep considering how badly he feels about it:
David Lynch: “Dune I didn’t have final cut on. It’s the only film I’ve made where I didn’t have, I didn’t technically have final cut on The Elephant Man but Mel Brooks gave it to me, and on Dune the film, I started selling out even in the script phase knowing I didn’t have final cut, and I sold out, so it was a slow dying- the-death and a terrible terrible experience. I don’t know how it happened, I trusted that it would work out but it was very naive and, the wrong move….”so once again it’s money talking and not for the film at all and so it was like compacted and it hurt it, it hurt it. There is no other version. There’s more stuff, but even that is putrefied.”
1986: Blue Velvet
Ah, Blue Velvet. This for me, is the film where David Lynch truly came into his own as a filmmaker. And I guess, what works so spectacularly about this film is the plot and the story Lynch builds from that. The idea that something so sinister could be going on in a town so wholesome, really struck a chord with me. And the rich cinematography, the direction and the excellent performances, especially from Isabella Rossellini and a show-stealing and utterly unforgettable one from Dennis Hopper all work in making this possible. It’s also Lynch’s most raw, provocative, darkly humorous and emotionally resonant film to date which really goes a long way in putting it very, very close to the top of Lynch’s filmography.
1990: Wild At Heart
One of Lynch’s more underrated films, but also one of his best and funniest. And by funny I ofcourse mean the fucked-up David Lynch funny. It’s also worth noting that this is the first film that finally got him the Palme d’Or, something that came as a surprise to many people at the time. But really whats not to like about Wild At Heart? it’s laced with this layer of infectious dark comedy, it’s gorgeously shot, has a beautiful love story at it’s center and features an array of memorable scenery-chewing performances by Diane Ladd, Nicolas Cage, Willem Dafoe and Laura Dern. It’s also probably the first film that introduced us to crazy Nicolas Cage, something that has morphed into Nicolas Cage’s persona nowadays, so that’s something.
1990-91: Twin Peaks
Season 1 – 10/10
Season 2 – 6.6/10
Of everything that Lynch has ever done, the first season of Twin Peaks is and will always be, in my opinion the best thing he has ever done. The show, set in the increasingly idiosyncratic fictional town of Twin Peaks focused on the murder of teenager Laura Palmer, and the way Lynch and co-creator Mark Frost revealed the mystery was truly a work of genius. But what worked best about Twin Peaks, and the reason it took the small-screen by storm back then, was because it was a really perfect balance of a number of elements that gave the show both an artistic edge and made it commercially accessible. It was a soap opera, a screwball comedy, a murder mystery, but also got very disturbing and surreal from time to time. And for two seasons, these elements and a cast of great characters, led by a particularly excellent Kyle MacLachan defined the show.
It got a little disappointing in his meandering and much longer second season which led to low-ratings and an eventual cancellation, just as it was getting better. The cancellation ending the show on a cliff-hanger. But Twin Peaks’ recent limited 18 episode resurrection run which will begin in 2017 will hopefully close the show on Lynch’s terms, which will also be the first thing David Lynch has directed since 2005’s Inland Empire, that isn’t a short film. I couldn’t be more excited.
1992: Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
Booed at Cannes, reviled by critics and fans of the show, the film that nearly destroyed Lynch’s career is also his most misunderstood one, and for me, his best aswell. What I love about Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is probably how richly atmospheric it is. Fear, paranoia and the ambiguity of details have never taken more of a center stage in a David Lynch film and the result is something very strange but purely Lynchian. Sheryl Lee’s outstanding performance as Laura Palmer stands-out as one one of the highlights, and the film which serves as a prequel to the show, also offers a very dark side to the Laura Palmer story the show wasn’t able to explore for obvious reasons, but was always there.
1997: Lost Highway
Lost Highway is a film that for me, seemed a lot more intriguing on paper, than it actually was in reality. And it’s easily one of Lynch’s weakest works to date that never really materializes into anything substantial. The signature Lynchian atmosphere is there, as is the creepiness and the surrealism, and it’s great to look at, but the story just doesn’t come together and makes absolutely no goddamn sense when it tries to. The characters feel like bad versions of better David Lynch characters from better David Lynch films and the two central performances from Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette completely miss the mark. It’s just a pointless fever dream of a movie that feels more like an exercise in style than anything else.
1999: The Straight Story
The Straight Story is probably one of the few films that perfectly lives up to it’s title. It is, for a better lack of a word, a very straight and simple story. Never in a million years could anyone have expected a film like this from someone like Lynch, but he did make it and the result was a delicate, moving and heartwarming tale of an elderly farmer on a journey to make amends with his ailing brother. It’s a likable film that paints a compelling portrait of family, love and forgiveness, carried by an excellent performance from Richard Farnsworth
2001: Mulholland Drive
Stranger, bizarre, beguiling, surreal to a fault are just some of the ways used to describe Lynch’s exploration of Hollywood’s seedy underbelly through the eyes of Naomi Watts as a woman on the dark fringes of it. Often referred to by most people as his best work, Mulholland Dr. is a film with has this fantastic combination of multiple genres; a neo-noir mystery, a psycho-sexual romance, horror and dark comedy all bubbling together in a layer of ambiguity and mystery. Naomi Watts gives a truly stunning central performance and the film is so uniquely constructed even after subsequent viewings, I haven’t been able to grasp the film completely, and manage to notice something new every time. It’s probably the most David Lynch film, David Lynch ever made.
2006: Inland Empire
While Lynch’s films always had an inherently dreamy and surrealistic feel to them, they also had a pretty established narrative. Mulholland Dr. was probably his first film where surrealism challenged the narrative and it worked because it came together as something genuinely though-provoking. With Inland Empire, quite possibly his last film, he pushed it to a whole new level creating a film that was bold, provocative and puzzling, but at the same time bloated and somewhat over-indulgent. The results were pretty mixed. I think it’s by far Lynch’s most bewildering and trippy film, the fact that he shot it digitally only helps in enhancing that feeling, as does Laura Dern’s outstanding and exceedingly scary performance. But there comes a time during the film’s testing 197 minute run-time, when the lack of substance proves to be a little too much, and that’s where this film starts to lose it’s edge.
Apparently Lynch was so impressed by Dern’s performance that he sat outside Hollywood Boulevard with a live cow to campaign for an Oscar nomination for her.
I think it’s incredibly disappointing that we live in a world where David Lynch doesn’t feel he can make films anymore. When asked about what the future three years ago, he had this to say:
“Even if I had a big idea, the world is different now. Unfortunately, my ideas are not what you’d call commercial, and money really drives the boat these days. So I don’t know what my future is. I don’t have a clue what I’m going to be able to do in the world of cinema.”
And considering the fact that it has been 10 years since he last made a film, we might have seen the last of his film career. But the Twin Peaks revival next year has given me hope, he’ll be directing all 18 episodes which is an added bonus. If we can’t see David Lynch’s work on the big screen, maybe the small screen isn’t the worst place from him to bring his ideas, especially considering how TV has become more and more of an outlet for intelligent, artistically driven story-telling in recent years.