Lost in the Movies (formerly The Dancing Image): It's a Strange World: A David Lynch retrospective, 1967 - 2013 (part two: the forest)

Monday, June 30, 2014

It's a Strange World: A David Lynch retrospective, 1967 - 2013 (part two: the forest)


This is my fifth and final entry in David Lynch Month, an essay examining long-term changes in Lynch's work. You don't necessarily need to read "part one" first, particularly if you're already familiar with Lynch. There are spoilers for all of his films.

This week's "Question in a World of Blue" is: What does the term "Lynchian" mean to you? You can respond in the comments below or on your own blog (please tag this entry in your response).

David Lynch has been making films for almost half a century. Because it took him another ten years to release his first feature, and nearly another decade to achieve his full-on "Lynchian" breakthrough into the mainstream, we tend to forget he's been around for so long. But Lynch's work stretches from the avant-garde cinematic renaissance of the late sixties (with its reliance on celluloid and aesthetic discipline) to the digital free-for-all of the twenty-first century teens (unmoored and immersed in its own video hyperactivity). He has both shaped his times and been shaped by them, but he's also stood apart - a one-man band beating his own crazy clown drum, sometimes celebrated as a true and timeless American original, sometimes scorned as a self-indulgent sideshow to the larger world, societal and cinematic.

From my recent Lynch marathon, two distinct and somewhat paradoxical observations emerged: a sense of unpredictability alongside an awareness of trajectory. On the one hand, Lynch's body of work is more wildly diverse than is usually credited: yes, there is a special "Lynchian" mood, style, and sensibility, but within that world there is incredible flexibility, ranging from the gentle, G-rated sincerity of The Straight Story (1999) to the raw, hallucinatory terror of Inland Empire (2006). Not only does Lynch's oeuvre feature wild fluctuations in tone, look, and subject matter, these wild fluctuations often occur from one project to the next. This marathon reminded me that the wacky, light-hearted TV pilot On the Air (1992) premiered a mere month after the intensely dark and emotional Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), while Lynch's tragic, stylish Mulholland Drive (2001) was shot around the time he recorded the gleefully juvenile Thank You Judge (2002).

Yet if Lynch can't be simplistically pigeonholed, he can - with caution and qualification - be placed. Over nearly fifty years his work, and the voice expressed in that work, has undergone gradual and long-lasting transformations: despite the variations film to film, strong patterns and an overall evolution emerge when looking at the big picture. This means not only recognizing links and echoes between far-flung films (say, the mirrored endings of Eraserhead (1977) and Fire Walk With Me) but also observing a tidal flow to the themes and styles presented onscreen. There is a chronological march in which claustrophobic panic gives way to rootless wandering, classical restraint dissolves into multilayered impressionism, and recognition of corruption from within slowly overtakes the quest against external evil. Just as in Lynch's films random experimentation and apparent non sequiturs coalesce into powerful, perhaps unintentionally resonant psychodramas, so several narrative arcs emerge when examining the totality of Lynch's expression.


Into and Out of Storytelling

The most obvious way to break up Lynch's career is in three: a relatively mainstream exploration of narrative and character bookended by periods of largely non-narrative experimentation in form and mood. Between Six Figures Getting Sick (1967) and Eraserhead, Lynch's "stories" are either extremely cryptic or altogether absent. None of these films can be located in any approximation of the real world - rather, they are fantastical dream projections. Next follow The Elephant Man (1980) and Dune (1984), two films which are essentially transitional. Basically works-for-hire, in which Lynch brings his stylistic motifs and thematic preoccupations to material created by others (although he wrote the adaptations for both), they obviously don't fit in with his first films at all. As fully narrative, mainstream movies, they do serve as an appropriate segue into his second period, which really hits its stride with Blue Velvet (1986).

This critically-acclaimed breakthrough brings the "Lynchian" world into full flower, featuring offbeat corny humor, a dark obsession with sex and violence, and the fascinated interplay of wholesome and sordid, cheerful and despairing, ironic and ominous. Lynch continues in this vein, with increasing degrees of obscurity, mysticism, and emotional immersion, until the abandoned TV pilot-turned-feature film Mulholland Drive. At this point he drops flirtation with the mainstream in favor of esoteric experimentation. Online videos like Rabbits (2002) and the end-of-cinema mindfuck Inland Empire wholeheartedly abandon any pretense of accessibility and embrace the cultivation of mood for its own sake. Though this period echoes Lynch's youth, digital technology and his passage through narrative cinema offer him new tools, and in the new millennium this senior citizen has emerged as one of America's most youthfully spontaneous and imaginative experimental filmmakers.


Theme: The Evil Inside

This straightforward segmentation of Lynch's work can, however, be misleading, as there are equally important strands unwinding at different paces with their own turning points. In many of these, the chronological midpoint and popular high point of Lynch's career (1990, with the hit TV series Twin Peaks and Palme d'Or-winning Wild at Heart) serves as the crucial fulcrum. Thematically, Lynch's early work places darkness and evil firmly "outside" the hero and his home (The Grandmother (1970), a short suggesting incest, sexual shame, and parricide, is the primary exception although its central character remains an innocent). In Eraserhead the protagonist may be a weirdo, but the world around him is so much weirder we identify with him above everyone else, certainly above the infant monstrosity which wails from his dresser. While physically ugly (unlike most early Lynch protagonists), The Elephant Man's title character is essentially a saint and the hero of Dune is literally a messiah; the villains in both films are drooling, pussing, dirty and/or homoerotic caricatures. In The Elephant Man, Dune, Blue Velvet, and the early episodes of Twin Peaks the heroes are part of or protected by the institutional establishment while their tormentors often belong to a vicious, unpredictable underclass.

However, with each of those works the enemy creeps closer and closer to the hero's ground. The Elephant Man shifts the Eraserhead baby's telltale deformations onto our inwardly pure hero, Dune's cartoonishly wicked villains are nonetheless part of the same rough power structure as the heroes (who are forced into guerrilla tactics to overcome them), Blue Velvet's gangsters have ties to the police, and in Twin Peaks some of the villains are wealthy power players. In the summer between Twin Peaks seasons, Lynch released Wild at Heart, a nineties update of Bonnie & Clyde and Badlands with the crucial difference that its on-the-road couple, Sailor and Lula, are barely outlaws (Sailor killed a man in self-defense and is breaking parole). To emphasize this distinction, their pursuers are powerful criminals rather than cops. While Sailor is drawn closer to a life of crime, a clear distinction is made between him and the ferociously ugly, evil Bobby Peru; in the end, Sailor's essential goodness wins out after a largely inner struggle.


The true tipping point arrives when Lynch reveals Laura Palmer's killer in the second season of Twin Peaks. In earlier episodes the killer is identified as Bob, a stringy-haired drifter who appears to various characters in visions. But on the climactic episode of the show, we discover that Leland Palmer, Laura's father, was actually possessed by Bob (who is a spiritual, rather than a physical being) when he murdered his own daughter. For the first time since The Grandmother, the supposedly safe, comfortable harbor of home is realigned with dark forces, and the villain becomes a powerful, personable figure rather than a projected image of darkness (although the conceit of a spiritual demon displaces some of Leland's responsibility). The prequel film, Fire Walk With Me, takes this notion even further as Bob tries to possess not only Leland (who now seems more aware of and corrupted by "Bob"'s actions) but Laura as well - ultimately she rejects him via recourse to a magical ring, but she is one of the last Lynch heroes to be so fortunate. A complicated exception would be The Straight Story's true-to-life Alvin Straight, who never quite loses his dark side but is at least able to recognize and make peace with it. He is easily the most balanced and well-rounded Lynch character, perhaps the only one to reconcile the dark and light, neither slicing one off from the other nor descending into madness.

Meanwhile, Lost Highway (1997), Mulholland Drive and even more obscure works like the TV short Tricks (1993) offer protagonists increasingly compromised by their proximity to evil and/or madness, even as they vainly attempt to project that evil onto outside figures. In a trend beginning with Laura and Leland (and making us wonder about earlier characters like Eraserhead's Henry or Blue Velvet's Jeffrey), our protagonists dissociate from their own personalities and live in a painful miasma of disorientation - by the gloomy conclusion of Mulholland Drive, the cautious, almost naive optimism of Blue Velvet has long vanished from Lynch's world. While Inland Empire is difficult to pin down dramatically, its fragments of narrative feature a woman wandering in and out of various versions of reality, confusing herself with the part she is playing and bleeding into stories which seem unrelated to her own. At this point (at least until Inland Empire's euphoric conclusion), we have completely descended into the grey world of insanity, so that the clear delineations between good and evil, light and dark, personal identity and loss of self have dissolved. In a sense, we're back in the cold world of Eraserhead but without any protective, indifferent distance from weakness. The emotional flavor of Lynch's later work is saturated with grief, guilt, depression, and loneliness rather than alienated anxiety.


Theme: Losing Faith 

Roughly corresponding to the evolution of Lynch's approach to evil and darkness is a gradual realignment of narrative perspective from the powerful to the powerless (although this sympathy is often submerged in short-form comedic works like Dumbland (2002) or Crazy Clown Time (2012), which use masculine aggression as a punchline). The climax of Eraserhead, in which Henry pulls apart his grotesque, alien child and is rewarded with a trip to the heaven behind the radiator, is reflected fifteen years later in Fire Walk With Me, in which Leland butchers his daughter after years of abuse, and she - not he - receives the angelic visitation. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me also paves the way for the female protagonists of Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire. These heroines bring with them a sense of vulnerability, uncertainty, and fragility that earlier Lynch characters lacked (Dorothy of Blue Velvet is their precursor, although we're not allowed inside her head - like Jeffrey we are slowly drawn into her world while remaining detached).

Although he avoids making open ethical or political statements and praises the role of ambiguity in art, Lynch's work demonstrates an ever-increasing moral engagement and emotional empathy. Despite his aesthetic subversion and graphic content, Lynch has often been identified as a conservative, in both the broad personal sense (affection for wholesome motifs, aversion toward dirtiness, fear of loss of control, identification with authority figures) and specific cultural contexts (his outspoken admiration of Reagan, watered down until he eventually endorsed Obama, led to characterizations of him as the surrealist wing of the cultural reaction, reflecting patriarchal and bourgeois norms in a fun-house mirror rather than smashing them altogether). Yet if Lynch never embraced the radical application of subversion and ambiguity - that is to say, if his work never prescribed any revolutionary solution to social anxieties or personal alienation - he did increasingly lose faith in conventional forms of security. From the aristocratic patronage of Elephant Man and the police rescue in Blue Velvet he moves to the generally failed FBI investigation of Twin Peaks (the killer is caught only after another victim is brutally murdered, and Cooper himself eventually loses his soul to the forces of evil) and Fire Walk With Me's identification of family authority and order with oppression and violence (imagine the vicious irony of that "wash your hands" scene in the cleanliness-obsessed Elephant Man).


Laura's speech in Fire Walk With Me is a complete reversal of the robin dream in Blue Velvet; instead of the birds bringing light to a dark world, she envisions a helpless free-fall climaxing in meaningless extinction, "and the angels won't help you, because they've all gone away." At the very end of the film Laura is proven wrong, but only by disappearing herself from this ugly, unjust world. As Jeff Johnson notes in Pervert in the Pulpit: Morality in the Works of David Lynch (2004), "[Laura] replaces a painting of angels in her room with an image of an open door, symbolically trading the selfless temperance of devotion for the existential excess of possibility." While Johnson sees Lynch judging and disapproving this replacement, I think he recognizes it as inevitable if unfortunate. Two moments - the hanging of the door picture, and the disappearance of the angel from the other picture (which was actually displaced, not replaced) - crystallize the final extinction of innocence in Lynch's cinema. The Straight Story, Lynch's most peaceful subsequent film, subtly continues this tendency toward existential odyssey rather than faithful quest. When offered a short ride to his destination (rather than continue on his broken-down tractor), Alvin Straight politely declines and insists on finishing his trip in his own way, telling his would-be rescuer, "You're a kind man talking to a stubborn man." Without either placing blame on external villains or sharing the generally pessimistic conclusions of Lynch's other later works, The Straight Story fully recognizes the world's darkness and confusion (Alvin experienced war trauma, alcoholism, and family alienation, while his daughter had her children taken away). Robins and angels won't rescue us - we've got to ride that tractor by ourselves till the end of the road.

Narrative: Abandoning Realism

Ironically, just as the possibility of deus ex machina redemption disappears from Lynch's stories, the level of supernatural activity grows exponentially - in Lynch's world, the supernatural indicates demonic disruption rather than divine intercession. Early films like The Grandmother and Eraserhead are all supernatural: which is to say, they aren't supernatural at all, since there's no "natural" world established. With The Elephant Man adapting a true story and Dune existing in a sci-fi universe with its own rules, Blue Velvet is his first film to exist in a world simultaneously "real" and Lynchian. Despite weird, uncanny incidents and even elements of magic in the cutting of the film (Frank's disappearance from the frame, the dreamy slo-mo close-up montages), there is one level to its physical reality. Blue Velvet is Lynch's most secular movie, and perhaps his most Freudian (rather than Jungian). Twin Peaks operates in the same realm at first - psychic flashes of Killer Bob and of course the legendary Red Room dream could be explained away within the plot. But by the time giants are assisting Agent Cooper and owls are communicating via interstellar broadcasts, Lynch had decisively mixed the dream-world logic of his seventies work with the wacky-but-real-world textures of his eighties classic. (Diane Stevenson calls the blurred zone between physical and metaphysical "the fantastic" and directly connects Lynch's employment of "the fantastic" to his exploration of family violence.)


Late Twin Peaks and Fire Walk With Me raise the supernatural stakes while encouraging allegorical readings. Likewise, Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive and even Inland Empire offer unexplained phenomena and spiritual possession as both straightforward incursions into the plot and events whose primary significance is psychodramatic rather than literal. What Lynch did in the second part of his career is, in my opinion, one of his most valuable and wide-reaching contributions to American popular art. He restored the mythological approach to its proper place in contemporary storytelling: not as an eccentric "magical realist" flourish, nor as a full-fledged and thus excusable genre technique, but as an important and equal tool in interpreting the world around us. When the demon crawls through Laura's window and then appears to her as her own father, when Fred's head melts and he becomes Pete in his jail cell, when Diane is pursued into her bedroom by cackling old people released from a paper bag, we don't need to be told whether these events are happening in the external world or inside the characters' minds. Either way, they exist on the same plane of consciousness because to Lynch, dreams are as much a part of our everyday reality as waking life. Embracing dream logic and the "supernatural" (perhaps a misnomer, given the full integration of these events) takes us deeper into the real world, not further from it.

Narrative: Doubling and Dividing

The Straight Story, which Lynch did not write, is the only exception to his supernatural trend; likewise, it's his only late film which does not "double", telling two seemingly unrelated yet intertwined stories back-to-back. Before 1990, it's difficult to find any evidence for this tendency in Lynch's work. Instead his focus is very narrow and specific, sticking to a single narrative throughline even in Dune with its numerous worlds and elaborate mythology. The Elephant Man does slowly switch viewer identification from Frederick Treves to John Merrick, but the ingeniously subtle realignment occurs almost subconsciously. Blue Velvet is probably the best example of Lynch's ability to lay out a complex system of contrasts within a self-enclosed universe, whose rules and parameters are clearly defined. The risks to Jeffrey are real, but he's able to negotiate between the threat of Frank, the temptation of Dorothy, and the comfort of Sandy precisely because he knows where to locate each. Perhaps it was the serialized freedom of Twin Peaks that encouraged Lynch to abandon this focused storytelling, but by Wild at Heart the strains are already showing. Lynch's last screenplay to contain a relatively conventional plot structure, the road movie nonetheless makes room for cutaways to Marietta's bizarre exploits, Lula's startling flashbacks and Cousin Dell's hilarious obsession with cockroaches and Santa suits. This is Lynch's last attempt at obvious narrative coherence. Although the subsequent structures will be partly determined by practical circumstances (both Fire Walk With Me and Mulholland Drive are rooted in serialized sources), there is a distinct progression to their efforts.


In Fire Walk With Me Lynch finally succumbs to his fascination with detours and world-building, doubling his narrative for the first time. Notably, Lynch does not cross-cut the FBI investigation of Deer Meadow with Laura Palmer's final days in Twin Peaks (an approach with more precedent) but delineates them neatly, like two films contained within the same movie. The official authorities get nowhere in the search for clues, while Laura - listening to the spirit world and her own subconscious - discovers the awful truth. Through structural contrast, Lynch privileges self-realization over outside explanation. Likewise, the split structures of Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive dramatize an existential point through doubling and division. In each case, the narrative shift becomes more alarming while the separate characters grow more intertwined. Fire Walk With Me divides a third of the way into the movie, with the FBI and Laura Palmer distinct entities; Lost Highway splits into more or less equal thirds and allows Pete and Fred to occupy different bodies in the same space; and Mulholland Drive pulls the rug out when it's two-thirds over, while its contrasting characters - Betty and Diane - are played by the same actress. Finally, in Inland Empire, the narrative disintegrates into a dozen different pieces, with Laura Dern playing numerous characters who can cross between worlds, stories, and personalities with ease if not comfort. This escalating chaos and climactic re-integration suggest Lynch may have achieved his purpose with the "doubling" approach. It will be interesting to see what structure he adopts for his next feature.

Form: Lynch's Techniques

Alongside these dramatic shifts in Lynch's content, a parallel evolution of form was taking place. Again 1990 was the turning point although in this case it was Wild at Heart rather than Twin Peaks that shook things up. From Eraserhead through the Twin Peaks pilot, Lynch's style is consistently "classical" (Mark Cousins prefers the term "closed romantic realism"), using conventional film language to establish an illusion of space, upon which Lynch's evocation of dread and unease usually relies. To this standard approach, Lynch brings a subtle preference for long takes and medium wide shots during dialogue rather than frequent cross-cutting. When they do arrive, his cuts - except in fleeting montages like the Blue Velvet or Elephant Man dreams - are usually "invisible", masked by shot-reverse shot techniques or point-of-view motivation. Because he loves the quirks of his performers and the humor of awkward silences, Lynch prefers to emphasize beats with camera movements rather than relying on the usual alternation of close-up and medium (although again, the technique is usually "invisible"; during a police interrogation in the Twin Peaks pilot, we feel the effects of directorial patience and control, but probably don't consciously notice that Lynch hasn't punched in or cut away for several minutes). While employing alienating effects, playful irony, and wild fluctuation in tone, Lynch's early work can't really be described as "Brechtian": his purpose is to make us question our reactions or identifications, to trouble and stir our emotions, but not really to expose the nature of the fiction itself (although many postmodernists assumed otherwise, particularly when praising Twin Peaks).


Without any dramatic effects to disrupt or complicate the mood Lynch is cultivating, we are immersed in his unique worlds without quite being a part of them. There is a quiet, intense deliberation to Lynch's work from Eraserhead to Twin Peaks which brings with it a bit of distance, a feeling of Apollonian restraint. This may explain why critics identified him as a formalist and occasionally complained that his work, while beautiful and often vivid, had a certain coldness to it. Lynch's earliest shorts, however, had been more abrasive if no less rigorous. When he reached the height of his critical acclaim and audience popularity, Lynch confidently adopted a more visceral, Dionysian style for his features. If Blue Velvet defines itself with cautious economy (after the lumbering and often impersonal Dune, Lynch needed to focus and simplify his vision), Wild at Heart is exactly as its title suggests, kicking off the nineties with a visceral blast of adrenaline. The movie opens with a shocking bit of violence, but just as significant is its kinetic style: camera moving as if powered by the characters' energy, cuts serving as bold emphasis rather than just subtle punctuation. Wild at Heart is an obvious influence not just on the subject of later nineties road movies (like Natural Born Killers) but also their style.

Twin Peaks' second season showcases Lynch's continued willingness to experiment visually, employing more noticeable angles and dramatically exaggerated lighting and lenses, perhaps to keep up with the otherworldly elements being added to the show. Compared to the clean, economical, perfectly-executed pilot, the series finale is an exercise in baroque weirdness: were we not prepared for the subtle shifts over the course of the series (Lynch directed six episodes), pilot and finale might even appear to be the work of different directors. By the time Lynch puts the axe to the Twin Peaks universe in Fire Walk With Me, he is letting his freak flag fly not just in what he shows, but how he shows it. This was the Lynch film that baffled many of his longtime fans; while Wild at Heart is chock-full of random asides and whimsical setpieces, its tone suggests Lynch is just having a lark. Fire Walk With Me, on the other hand, is dead serious while employing eerie atmospheric effects and exploring cryptic dream states. Divorced from a classical visual discipline, Lynch's fondness for unexplained eccentricity (certainly evident in Blue Velvet, especially the "This Is It" visit) can overwhelm rather than entice viewers. Those who go for the ride, however, are transported to a new dimension: David Bowie's cameo, accompanied by overlapping static, melancholy jazz, and incomprehensible dialogue, no longer merely suggests the uncanny but thrusts the audience into it.


In the second and most important part of Fire Walk With Me, Lynch's new fondness for blurry, overlapping visuals and floating Steadicam shots (henceforth Lynchian trademarks) put us inside Laura's mind. No longer are we trapped in Henry's apartment or Jeffrey's closet, anxiously trying to protect ourselves from the threatening world outside - we're in the shit. As the emotions in Lynch's work become more direct and immersive, his narratives grow more oblique and explicitly dreamlike, and his visual approach follows suit. Lost Highway takes Wild at Heart's gasoline-fueled energy in darker directions, Mulholland Drive expands on Fire Walk With Me's swooning subjectivity, and Inland Empire may be the first Lynch work in which form leads content, in the Kubrickian fashion (more on that in a moment). Much transformation is down to changing technology; certainly Inland Empire is above all else a formal experiment, an exploration of the possibilities of video. It is interesting to hear Lynch remark that visuals are only now catching up to where sound has been for decades. Considering that his soundtracks were traditionally more avant-garde than his visual techniques, perhaps his directorial decisions were a matter of opportunity rather than intention. When reaching viewers directly through his own website, or shooting a feature film at low cost and his own pace, Lynch's work suddenly becomes wildly experimental.

In the twenty-first century, Lynch's aesthetic has changed significantly (with his nineties commercials and music videos paving the way). The auteur of the austerely beautiful Elephant Man and romantically glamorous Blue Velvet is now directing near-Dadaist videos shot in extreme close-up with distorting lenses, chopped into aggressively disorienting and sharply divided fragments, littered with hints of story and suggestions of character - just enough to thrust viewers into a mood of nervous curiosity, but never enough to give them firm footing. The radical stylist of early short films like The Alphabet has returned with a vengeance and a new toolbox, allowing him to manipulate live-action footage with the freedom of an animator. And he's returned directly to animation as well after a three-decade break: the gleefully lowbrow Dumbland features cutting and sound design so aggressively rapid it's nearly hypnotizing, while some of his hyperactive music videos are known to cause seizures. On the other hand, Lynch's video art pieces and the memorable "web series" Rabbits resort to a slower - even glacial - pace and static setups to induce a trancelike state in the viewer.


Form: Is There a "Lynchian" Style?

It's worth noting that unlike most great directors, Lynch's stylistic "voice" is hard to pinpoint despite iconic imagery, which is the object rather than the technique of his filmmaking. The consistent flavor of his films is usually conveyed through performance, pace, and that ineffable element known as "atmosphere" (the delicate assembly of peripheral elements like score, set design, and costume) than through the core components of "mise en scene": camera movement, composition, blocking, or shot selection. This is not to say that Lynch isn't a master of those elements - he absolutely is - but he's certainly not what David Bordwell would call a "stubborn stylist," a director who expresses himself primarily through specific cinematic tools. We know a "Hitchcock close-up" or an "Ozu angle" or an "Antonioni dolly" but there are surprisingly few such Lynch trademarks (although his Peaks episodes were often characterized by longer takes, wider lenses, and higher angles than other directors employed). That said, the director has developed, as flourishes, very distinctive visual motifs (random inserts of ominous objects, wobbly point-of-view shots, characters slowly looking offscreen or toward the camera, oversaturated lighting, and especially overlapping images) and even more distinctive aural motifs (ominous room tone, emphasis of innocuous yet sinister noises, and of course sumptuous, none-too-subtle musical cues).

As with Ingmar Bergman or Federico Fellini, but without their stylistic consistency, in Lynch's features form usually follows (emotional) content. This means that presentation is dictated by images and feelings arising from the subconscious, rather than vice versa. By contrast, such diverse filmmakers as Andrei Tarkovsky, Stanley Kubrick, or Jean-Luc Godard convey a sense of inventing their films at the point of visualization, whether on set or planned ahead. Simply put, their films are about the how as much or more than the what. Method creates mood, an approach echoed by Lynch only in Inland Empire and some of his digital shorts. The Shining is as much a film "about" ominous trips down hallways and hypnotically exhausted reaction shots as the haunting of a hotel - in different hands, the exact same screenplay would result in a completely distinct experience. This is not quite true of Lynch; while other directors' episodes of Twin Peaks don't reach Lynchian heights, it's a matter of degree rather than kind (at least when Lynch has contributed to the conceptualization). Because he's never been a "story" filmmaker, Lynch is often assumed to be a stylist, but in fact he's something else entirely. With his art at the service of neither narrative delivery nor formal exploration (until recently), Lynch seems more like a traditional artist than a modern one, perhaps even a religious artist in the sense that he uses audio-visual techniques to evoke and manifest a spiritual state. (The nature of that spiritual state, possibly more Hindu than anything else, is another essay altogether.)


Conclusion

Where does Lynch go from here? In recent years he's expressed more interest in music and short-form filmmaking than feature direction; in retrospect his 20-year-stretch as a surrealist dabbling in the mainstream may seem more like the aberration than the non-narrative experimentation that preceded and followed it. Will Lynch return to the screen with something like a conventional story? Can he work with actors (and he is a remarkably gifted director of actors) outside of dramatic frameworks? Is the narrative feature form simply too limited for his imagination right now, or can he find a way to renew and realign that tradition with a cultural zeitgeist which is leaving it behind, in favor of the flowing serialization of television and the interactivity of video games and internet? Viewing Lynch's body of work as an unfinished whole, we can see - whatever our preference in his filmography - an increasing scope and deepening immersion. This isn't to say the later films are "better" than his earlier ones (indeed, Eraserhead may be his most perfectly-executed work) or that his embrace of video, short-form, and experimentation isn't in some ways a regression as well as an advance. Nothing is so simple. Yet I find myself very thankful that Lynch has seldom stood still, that he's ranged so far in subject and style, that he's challenged himself with the differing pressures and anxieties of both studio and amateur filmmaking.

Right now there is a perfect symmetry to Lynch's body of work: he has created exactly ten features that divide down the middle stylistically and thematically. Stylistically, there are four very disciplined, restrained works followed by the formal breakthrough of Wild at Heart and Fire Walk With Me and then four increasingly loose, relaxed movies (even the seemingly restrained Straight Story allows a lyrical drift to the visuals that doesn't characterize, for example, Blue Velvet). Thematically, Lynch has moved from four films obsessed with repression, through two transitional films which lift the repression but leave characters on their own, to four final films in which the characters can no longer repress the darkness and disorientation emerging from within rather than without. And yet Inland Empire indicates release from this cycle of suffering, suggesting a true life after death in a fashion that echoes and glorifies Lynch's most famous medium. The film does not conclude with the static imagery of Eraserhead or Fire Walk With Me in which "heaven" has a certain finality and apartness to it. Instead Inland Empire offers an afterlife in which boundless light overflows the individual to commune throughout the world. The "Nikki" who stands up from the final shot of On High in Blue Tomorrows is no longer Nikki the actress nor even Sue the character, but rather Nikki the screen presence, the cinematic talisman. As she moves beyond the soundstage where the film is shot, into the theater where it is shown to a crowd, and finally into the hotel room where an unhappy, lonely girl finds solace in its images, she serves as the embodiment of artistic vision itself, moving beyond the moment of creation out into the world where other lives can be touched.

And so David Lynch's own works reach viewer after viewer, saddening, frightening, transforming, and finally empowering them one by one. Don't throw away those seeds, Henry! You never know how they'll blossom.

9 comments:

Anonymous said...

(Administrator note: I'm going to cross-post comments from an IMDb thread addressing my "Question in a World of Blue" regarding the definition of "Lynchian")

yannaerts-698-718891 says:

"This list may contain spoilers!

That is a very good question. I asked me this question too and made some research about it, but since I couldn't find a serious or relevant answer, I came up with some of my own...
At first, it is undeniable that Lynch has a style of his own, a very personal, surreal, sometimes esoteric style. His movies are often about dreams, hallucinations and fantasies but from the point of view of mentally disturbed characters (as seen in ''Eraserhead'', ''Lost Highway'', ''Mulholland Drive'' and ''Inland Empire''). And even when it's not from these point of views, dreams are very important in his movies.

Then, there's also the theme of appearances and on how you shouldn't be fooled by them. The most obvious examples are:
-In ''The Elephant Man'', John Merrick, the ''monster'', is actually more ''human'' than most of the ''normal'' humans in the movie.
-In ''Blue Velvet'' and ''Twin Peaks'', it's about the dark side of peaceful suburbs and on how they can hide horrible stories.
-In Mulholland Drive, he even goes further (the entire first part is a hoax, a dream, the ''real story'' unfolds at the end of the movie)

David Lynch has also made some more mainstream but pretty good movies like ''Wild at Heart'' and ''The Straight Story'', which contain some of his elements but in a more approachable style than his other movies...

I don't know why he made ''Dune'', because none of his frequent themes come back into this movie, and in my opinion it kinda sucked (I don't say it's a bad movie, it's just I didn't like it)

So, I hope I helped you with my explanation. I don't know if David Lynch himself would agree with me, but these are the things I felt while watching his movies..."

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks for the response (I will cross-post this and the rest of the discussion on my blog) - interesting that you focused on theme in your explanation. Do you feel there is a "Lynchian" style as well?

As for Dune I actually do see quite a few Lynch themes in there - a gifted & curious youth coming of age, the power of dreams and intuition, the fascination with the grotesque and horrible, but what's missing for me is the Lynch style. It feels more boxed-in, with less creative camerawork or pacing than his other films. The performances also feel a little stiffer.

Anonymous said...

yannaerts-698-718891 says:

"You're welcome!

I feel like the Lynchian style came in his later work like ''Lost Highway'' and ''Mulholland Drive'' but it was definitely present in his directorial debut ''Eraserhead''.

I feel like the movies preceding ''Lost Highway'', excluding ''Eraserhead'', didn't have what we like to call the Lynchian style. They were very good movies and you could already feel he had a very different world vision than most people. By watching his movies, I see him as a very profound and intelligent man. That's why I like his movies so much, because even if you don't especially have the same opinion, there are few people who defend their opinion as brilliantly as Lynch.

What I also like with his movies is that, every time you see it, you discover something new (like in a painting). You're never bored by watching his movies over and over again (if you like his style, of course) because you never fully understand it (some people hate that fact, but that's what I love about this man). He makes you think, and that is a quality we don't find a lot by directors nowadays.

I mostly focused on theme, it's true, but there are definitely some aesthetics that frequently come back in his movies (mostly an actress playing two roles or some graphic yet stylized violence)

I also find it interesting you liked Dune. Maybe I should rewatch it with what you said above in mind. Maybe I'll have a total different vision of it (that's how you recognize great movies)."

Joel Bocko said...

I actually don't like Dune that much! But a couple viewings have warmed to it a bit, and I can see some of the ways it fits into his body of work (as well as the ways it doesn't).

I agree that there's an open, exploratory quality to his work that keeps me coming back. Like you, I find it enticing although others find it frustrating.

Anonymous said...

lotsofevil says:

"One-shot take from a wide angle in the upper corner of a room, deliberate awkwardness of speech, dry atmosphere."

Joel Bocko said...

On Twin Peaks at least - particularly in the later episodes - that's pretty on the money.

Albert Mena said...

Dear Joel,

I was thinking of working on Lynch's movies for my PhD, but after your articles I feel like I wouldn't be able to add anything to what you've already said. Congrats, and keep up the good work!!

Joel Bocko said...

Thanks for the compliment, Albert. There's always more I be said about Lynch, so I hope you pursue it! And if it's ok, I'd love to read whatever you end up reading - feel free to send me an email when it's done at movieman0283 at gmail.

Joel Bocko said...

*whatever you end up writing