In honor of Twin Peaks’ revival, Buzzsaw deconstructs Lynch’s cryptic filmography.
A naked woman emerges from the autumn night. Her skin is pale, and her mouth is bleeding. She sits on the curb, crying, just down the street from two children. One of these kids grew up to be American surrealist director David Lynch — “I’d never seen an adult woman naked,” he said when recalling the night in the recent documentary David Lynch: The Art Life.
Lynch’s limited filmography evolves from his 1977 debut Eraserhead through Twin Peaks — TIME magazine’s Richard Zoglin called the show “the most hauntingly original work ever done for American TV” — and continues to 2001’s Mulholland Dr., undoubtedly one of the most frustrating, complex and affecting films made this century. But even at his most accessible with the likes of Twin Peaks, The Elephant Man and Dune, the director maintains his foggy, dreamlike style.
In interviews, Lynch dodges questions about his films’ meanings. When he’s asked a question he feels like answering, he scrambles for the right words, but he says them with the kind-hearted cadence of his humble middle-American upbringing (he’s an Eagle Scout, and he was born in Montana). In The Art Life, Lynch sculpts, paints, smokes and pontificates about stories from his childhood and art school for all 77 minutes, saying nothing about any of his films — except when he barely speaks about Eraserhead before the film draws its curtains. Instead, Lynch talks about everything else: about playing in the mud with his childhood friends, about preserving dead birds and rotting fruit, and of course, about the naked woman. The documentary digs into Lynch’s inspirations as an artist, from his solitary, dreamlike childhood to his mentors in school.
Martin Scorsese was a film student, Terrence Malick was a philosophy student and David Lynch, through and through, was an art student. His films share the surrealist focus of his paintings, as well as their lack of color. “Black and white takes you kind of far away,” Lynch once said. “Some things are said better in it, some feelings come across better.” Eraserhead, a film that unfolds like a long, uninterrupted nightmare, is shot entirely in black and white, as is his grainy, standard-definition home-video movie Inland Empire, which is probably the closest he’s gotten to making a film about nothing. The Elephant Man, portions of Twin Peaks: The Return and a twenty-minute video of Lynch teaching you how to cook quinoa are black and white as well.
To speak of the style of Lynch and to try and reach a conclusion about his work is to row in circles forever: His films are elaborate puzzle boxes with no easy solutions. You can say Mulholland Dr. is about deconstructing the fantasies people have about Hollywood stardom, or you can say it’s about professional anxiety. Like all Lynch films, Mulholland Dr. shows the darkness lurking beneath the surface. In Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, small-town America is put under the microscope; in Fire Walk With Me, Lynch finds Oedipal terror and cosmic darkness in domestic life, in the home and in Mulholland Dr., his gaze turns to Hollywood to show the absurdity and evil that lies just so slightly out of sight.
But to put forth any one of these readings is to open a new line of questions: What about the subplot with Justin Theroux’s character and his wife? What does the cowboy mean? What is the creature in the alley outside Winkie’s?
Even Lynch himself doesn’t always know what his films are about. Inland Empire, for example, began shooting without a script, and Lynch would hand freshly written scenes to the cast the day of shooting. In interviews, Laura Dern said she had no idea what the movie was about and would have to wait to see it screened to discover for herself.
And Lynch’s films are always perverse. They’re threatening and terrifying. Eraserhead has deformed babies, and it’s got heads being turned into — you guessed it — erasers for pencils. Blue Velvet puts Dennis Hopper, Isabella Rossellini and Kyle Maclachlan in some of the most aggressive yet objectively filmed sex scenes in American cinema. Lost Highway confronts Bill Pullman with a pale-faced mystery man at a party. “We’ve met before, haven’t we?” the stranger asks.
“Where was it you think we’ve met?” Pullman’s character asks the stranger.
“At your house, don’t you remember?” the man answers. “As a matter of fact, I’m there right now.” He extends a cell phone to Pullman. “Call me,” he coaxes.
Lynch even transplanted that terrifying memory of the nude woman into Blue Velvet, when Rossellini, naked, beaten and bruised, staggers toward MacLachlan in the dead of night. Each of his movies function as a series of dreams linked together by webs of interconnecting stories and themes.
Lynch is fascinated by dreams, and his films take frequent dives into them. Surreal peaks exist in all of his works, from the Red Room of Twin Peaks — “That gum you like is going to come back in style” — to the Club Silencio performance from Mulholland Dr.
But like Club Silencio, Lynch will always use action over dialogue. When his characters speak, their words are intentionally stilted and strange. “You wouldn’t mind marrying me, would you, Henry?” someone asks in Eraserhead.
Lynch will often try and circumvent the need for talking entirely, as in Fire Walk With Me: When two federal agents meet with their boss (played by Lynch himself) for their next assignment, he introduces a girl who mimes out a few poses and actions. The agents use her clothing, facial expressions and gestures to piece together what their next case is. Sounds weird, doesn’t it? Lynch has inspired infinite books and essays to be written about his films because he’s weird. He refuses to give answers and refuses to produce coherent, easy movies.
Under that white, wavy hair style and those button-up shirts and suit jackets, Lynch is an artist. He might know exactly what he’s doing. He might not. But whatever Lynch is thinking about while he works, you can guarantee that even if he knows exactly what his stuff is supposed to mean, he’s not about to let you in on the joke.
Tyler Obropta is a third-year Cinema and Photography major who watched three Lynch video essays before writing this article.