This is my fourth entry in David Lynch Month. It is a chronological overview of his career, including full reviews of every single feature and capsules on every available short.
This week's "Question in a World of Blue" is: Do you see particularly important turning points in David Lynch's career? You can respond in the comments below or on your own blog (please tag this entry in your response).
Over three days, I watched almost every single film Lynch has created since 1967, and as "film" I include not just features or shorts, but commercials, music videos, TV pilots, even the occasional promo tag. Next week I will examine the overall evolution of his career, in theme, storytelling, and visual style. Today I'm going to focus more on the nitty-gritty, the "trees" that make up the Lynchian "forest" (if you want to avoid spoilers, just read about the films you've seen - the only entry that contains a spoiler for a separate film is Inland Empire, which discusses the end of Eraserhead in its last paragraph). I will examine each of his works in turn, starting with Six Figures Getting Sick, a painting-in-motion installation he created as an art student in the late sixties, and concluding with Came Back Haunted, a Nine Inch Nails video so rapid-fire it contains a health disclaimer. Thus his filmmaking work begins and (for now) ends in the service of other arts - painting and music - but along the way he emerged as one of the greatest filmmakers of the twentieth century, his work appearing in cinemas, on television, and eventually streaming over the internet. He's bridged all motion-picture mediums and approaches, told stories and immersed himself in irrational imagery, accomplished himself as a humanist director of sensitive performance and a formalist photographer of abstract images.
Despite his surprising range, there is a distinctly "Lynchian" flavor to all of his films, which we'll discover as we move through them one by one. Each feature film is covered in five paragraphs (except for Blue Velvet, Fire Walk With Me, and Inland Empire, which get six, and Mulholland Drive, which gets ten), his seven TV episodes are covered in three, particularly distinctive short projects in two, and the rest of his work in single short paragraphs (often a couple commercials are discussed together). Here's what I couldn't see: a fictitious Anacin commercial (1967), the "Champions" episode of the Lynch-Frost American Chronicles (1990), a low budget video for his song "A Real Indication" (1993), HBO's Hotel Room sketch Blackout (1993), advertisements for Alka-Seltzer and American Cancer Society (both 1993), video documentary Lamp (2007), the Wild at Heart deleted-scenes "sidequel" (2008), playful greetings to the 2008 Hollyshorts awards and the 2010 Twin Peaks festival, a concert film for Duran Duran (2011), and probably dozens or even hundreds of short clips from DavidLynch.com, which aren't listed in online filmographies unless they also appeared on DVD (all I can verify missing are two episodes of his goofy Over Yonder web series, but there must be plenty more where that came from). (UPDATE: there were also many more Playstation commercials made in 2000, which have since been gathered here.) Even with those exclusions, I covered sixty-seven titles below. For a filmmaker with only ten features under his belt, Lynch has been shockingly prolific.
Feel free to browse for the projects that interest you (it may be best to bookmark the post and return for several visits) or follow the entire overview chronologically - this retrospective can be read either way. Indeed, one could say the same of many of his films...
The Grandmother begins - like Eraserhead - with an animated, mythologized conception (in this case human figures growing out of the dirt, copulating, and "planting" a son: here reproduction is agricultural, rather than industrial). The rest of the film is told from the abused child's perspective rather than the frustrated parents'. The boy (Richard White) produces orange stains on his bedspread and is beaten by his father (Robert Chadwick); meanwhile at the dinnertable (the first of many horrific dinner scenes stretching from Eraserhead to Fire Walk With Me), his mother (Virginia Maitland) tries to kiss him and he resists, revolted by her fondling. Upstairs he will "plant" a grandmother (Dorothy McGinnis) who can offer him love and kindness and as he spends more time with her, he eventually builds up courage to destroy his parents. An Oedipal nightmare vomited up from the subconscious, The Grandmother was funded by the AFI and brought Lynch out to California from his dreaded (if inspiring) Philadelphia, whose dirty, violent, lonely landscape would linger in many of the director's subsequent works.
This is Lynch's first go at demonstrating the effectiveness of context-less conversation, the power that can lay behind seemingly meaningless words (see Rabbits, Darkened Room, the audition scene in Mulholland Drive and snatches of wacky dialogue in just about everything he's ever done). Furthermore, this is an aural as much as a visual experiment - testing the interaction of sound and image, pushing us to consider which is more important. On first viewing, we're bound to be distracted by the bleeding stump and pay little attention to what the woman is writing/narrating, but when we watch again and adjust to the gore her statements swim into focus. Even if we don't understand them, a kind of emotional resonance breaks through, amplified both by our visceral reaction to the shocking visuals and our eventual desensitization. The viewing experience is very multilayered and rewards (indeed, incorporates) repetition. Ultimately, The Amputee serves as a primer on how best to watch and appreciate any Lynch film.
Lynch's first feature is a quantum leap from his short work - in fact, it may be the most formally perfect movie he's ever made. Eraserhead (1977) is also among the most avant-garde; narrative, yes, but in a fever-dream alternative reality whose relationship to our own is ambiguous at best. This is a world in which dinner with the in-laws consists of cutting up dancing, bleeding mini-chickens while attempting to converse with a maniacally-grinning father (Allen Joseph) who spouts genial non sequiturs and a mother (Jeanne Bates) whose response to the menstruating poultry is to stick out her tongue and make animal noises while staring at the ceiling. If our hero Henry (Jack Nance) appears to be the normal one in these surroundings, it says more about the surroundings than it does him. A nervous, befuddled young man whose lumbering, quizzical passage through urban wastelands recalls Frankenstein's monster (while his shock of titular hair echoes the monster's Bride), Henry seems to live as much in the dreamscape of his mind - with its lever-pulling moon-man (Jack Fisk), milk bath with a next-door seductresses (Judith Roberts), and chipmunk-cheeked dancing lady behind the radiator (Laurel Near) - as in external reality.
Perhaps he visits these realms to escape the sickening cries of his infant child - although as his fiancee notes before bringing it home, "they're not even sure if it's a baby." And neither are we: the bleating creature on Henry's dresser has the head of a skinned rabbit, its flesh filled with boils and caked with spittle, its body cocooned in wrappings that render it even more helpless (and thus demanding) than most newborns. It's a brilliant homemade creation, crafted by Lynch and his collaborators from what they could scrounge on a limited AFI budget and personal resources, yet as convincing as any state-of-the-art animatronic puppet (and far more so than any digital concoction would be today). The pathetic monster is both repulsive and strangely sympathetic; its weakness fills us with anxiety and dread and when Henry approaches it at film's end with scissors in hand, we aren't sure if we're flinching in anticipation of gore or out of weird pity for the dreadful little deformity. We don't want to see it destroyed - we just want it to disappear. But as Lynch will constantly remind us over the next thirty years, you can't wish away pain or ugliness. You must face them head-on.
Lynch certainly faced his many challenges head-on; in what must be some sort of record (or close to it), Eraserhead was shot over the course of about five years. During some of that time, Lynch himself slept in Henry's room, a set built in one of the unused areas on the AFI estate; his habitation was illegal, but then the whole project has the air of transgression. That it was seen to completion seems a miracle, and a testament to the dedication Lynch aroused in his cast and crew. They worked long nights, stealing a shot or two in the hours they should have been resting from their day jobs (whose paychecks often went right into the film's budget). With an intense focus that will linger through Lynch's early works but disappear eventually into the mist of digital freedom, Lynch's vision is extremely disciplined - yet within these claustrophobic confines the possibilities seem endless. With its incredibly unique set design, iconically dark-side-of-the-moon performers, and achingly lustrous black-and-white cinematography, this vies with The Elephant Man as Lynch's best-looking film. In strict "movie-movie" terms - bold, original expression, visual storytelling, formal consistency - it may very well his best film, period. It definitely feels like his most purely cinematic.
Yet if Eraserhead is pure and perfect, that doesn't mean it's purely and perfectly "Lynchian." The film brilliantly expresses several aspects of his sensibility, but many others were yet to be illuminated: the romantic sincerity of Blue Velvet, the luminous glamor of Mulholland Drive, the fascination with small-town values of Twin Peaks, the fifties-greaser affectations of Wild at Heart. And while Lynch's previous two projects and subsequent feature would cast a sympathetic eye on warped and/or abused bodies (even if Lynch's stories prefer to identify with goodhearted strength until Fire Walk With Me), in Eraserhead, weak deformity is viewed entirely from without, as incomprehensible in speech as it is immobile in flesh. Lynch has called Eraserhead his most "personal" and "spiritual" film, and there's certainly a sense that all the characters and situations are extensions of Henry's (and apparently Lynch's) psychic landscape, with no true independent existence of their own. Interestingly, over the course of his career Lynch will progressively create characters who are themselves split and conflicted, instead of simply having the whole ensemble manifest aspects of a single consciousness (most of his late films will combine both approaches - dividing a single personality into separate characters, but actually showing the process instead of making the split a pretext of the narrative).
With its low cost and cult following, Eraserhead would ride the midnight circuit for years to become one of Lynch's most profitable releases. Although many of the contemporary reviews were less than favorable, the film has become a classic. Fellow filmmakers (usually ahead of critics or film scholars) immediately appreciated what Lynch was doing: Stanley Kubrick screened Eraserhead on the set of The Shining and Mel Brooks was so astonished by the young filmmaker's work that he hired him for The Elephant Man. Along with Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive, Eraserhead forms a trilogy of (very different) movies that Lynch is still best-remembered for today. When critics knocked him in the eighties or nineties, they tended to hold his work to the standard of "Eraserhead's promise." Often they were disappointed by the absence of Eraserhead's uncluttered discipline, occasionally they regretted his flirtations with (relatively) mainstream filmmaking, and sometimes they distrusted the increasingly humanist, emotionally-invested nature of his work (which was usually rejected as insincere, as if the director of Eraserhead couldn't actually believe the things his characters felt and said). Eraserhead certainly cannot be accused of sentimentality. Like many of Lynch's early films (all of them, I would argue, until Fire Walk With Me), there is a certain coldness and distance to the proceedings. Eraserhead is like a gleaming diamond, fascinating and forbidding as it shines in the darkness.
If Eraserhead marked Lynch's arrival as a major film artist, The Elephant Man (1980) would establish him as a professional director, a man who could guide a project from the planning stages through the finishing touches, handling famous actors, large crews, and location shooting in order to realize a story through images, performance, and effective dramatic beats. In other words, it proved Lynch could work in the mainstream, and not just the margins. The Elephant Man is loosely based on the true story of the severely deformed Joseph Merrick (here changed to "John") and the surgeon Frederick Treves who treated him and introduced him into London Society. Already a famous play in the late seventies, the subject was adapted independently for the screen (as the filmmakers take great pains to note in the credits). Although I haven't read the play, I'm given to understand that it is more centered around Merrick, while the film focuses more on Treves (first-billed Anthony Hopkins) as a protagonist.
In the film, Merrick (John Hurt), whose body and head are covered by grotesque tumors, is a victim of abuse and ridicule, a helpless carnival freak whose owner Bytes (Freddie Jones) exploits, beats, and perhaps even prostitutes his "Elephant Man." (The strong sexual overtones in Bytes' conversation with Treves, and later the leering mockery of the Night Porter, played by Michael Elphick, teeter between implying literal molestation and merely analogizing Merrick's exhibition with rape.) Treves weeps when he first sees Merrick, but publicly presents himself as interested only for the sake of medical science; he then humiliatingly displays Merrick in a lecture hall. Only later, when Bytes has beaten Merrick senseless and Treves takes him to a private hospital room, does the doctor display sympathy for his subject as a human being. And so, increasingly, does the film itself. (A quick note on the true story: the real Merrick was entrepreneurial and empowered, sharing in the profits of his freak show, before meeting Treves and coming to reside at the hospital. The film's changes are both disappointing - the stock villains and confrontations of the second half seem rather rote - and understandable, as they allow an absorbing transformation to occur in both the characters and the audience's sympathy.)
The screenplay, on which Lynch collaborated with Frances (1982) writers Christopher De Vore and Eric Bergren, is ingeniously constructed, and Lynch's direction expertly convey its structural conceits visually. When Treves sees Merrick merely as a medical find, the audience is not allowed to truly meet him. We catch a brief glimpse of his body when Treves is introduced (enough to motivate the doctor's single tear, unforgettably - and accidentally - caught as the camera moves in for a close-up), after which Merrick is silently masked in a burlap sack for his arrival at the hospital, and silhouetted like a shadow puppet during the anatomical lecture. Only when a hospital nurse stumbles into his attic room are we allowed to linger on his shocking appearance. As we learn Merrick can pray and converse, that he harbors a lingering affection for his beautiful mother (kept by his side in a keepsake daguerreotype) and has a sensitive appreciation for art, our sympathy builds. But we are encouraged to identify primarily with Treves, who struggles with the question of whether he too is exploiting Merrick, albeit in more genteel fashion.
Meanwhile, something else is growing within the body of film (like a tumor, if you will), most evident in a haunting dream sequence halfway through in which Merrick gazes into a mirror and we witness the hellish churning of London's industrial bowels. When Merrick is harassed by the Night Porter and kidnapped by Bytes, Treves' supervisor Carr Gomm (John Gielgud) tells the doctor he did his best, "everything within his power" and we see Treves gazing helplessly through the window of Merrick's former prison ("I truly thought the ogre would never get out of his dungeon," Merrick says poignantly at the end of the film, after witnessing a fairy-tale pantomime performance). Now Merrick's fate is out of Treves' hand, and so it's the "Elephant Man" we follow to France, where fellow freaks will liberate him from his cage and send him back to England on his own, master of his fate for the first time. In the train station, Merrick is pursued by a hostile crowd until he confronts them with a cri de coeur: "I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am a man!" In the final scene of the film, we are alone with Merrick in his room as he quietly lies down on his bed, certain that the overwhelming weight of his bulbous head will suffocate him as he sleeps, but determined to sacrifice life for dignity. Here The Elephant Man finally passes through sympathy into empathy; it's the most moving sequence in Lynch's work so far. With remarkable subtlety, we've have slowly switched our identification over the course of the film.
The plot is worth recapping in full because it serves as a microcosm of Lynch's storytelling arc over the course of his career. From regarding freaks with a mixture of revulsion and fascination (Eraserhead and Dune) to identifying with the outcasts and locating the psychological freak inside physically beautiful bodies (Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Mulholland Drive), there is a strong progression in Lynch's work. With its compassionate if cautious approach to Merrick, The Elephant Man serves as an outlier in Lynch's early oeuvre as well as a harbinger of things to come, but in other ways it is very much of a piece with Eraserhead, Dune, and Blue Velvet. For one thing, the villainous characters are all on the margins of society - dirty, working-class cretins - while the establishment (the hospital management, the Victorian bourgeoisie, the police, even the Queen herself) provides noble protection for the innocent. Meanwhile sex is regarded with suspicion and fear; Merrick's chaste and tender kiss with the beautiful actress Mrs. Kendal (Anne Bancroft) is contrasted with the lecherous assault of the drunken proletariat on Merrick's quiet home. Visually, the film could be Eraserhead's twin. Shooting his final black-and-white feature with veteran cinematographer (and horror director) Freddie Francis, Lynch sinks us into the rich blacks, gorgeous greys, and smokey whites of his gothic world. Watching this and his debut back-to-back, one could be forgiven for anticipating a stark, beautifully cold grace to characterize all of Lynch's future work. In fact he would slowly move in an entirely different direction.
Having stepped from his own private underground film into a professional studio production, the next logical move in Lynch's career was to helm a huge international blockbuster. He turned down an offer to direct Return of the Jedi, aware that he would always be under George Lucas' shadow on a Star Wars sequel. Instead, he accepted producer Dino De Laurentiis' Dune (1984), based on the legendary Frank Herbert sci-fi novel of the mid-sixties (whose similarities to Star Wars had been noted by many sci-fi fans). Probably more than Jedi, Dune offered Lynch a chance to explore many of his favorite images: there are floating fetuses, grotesque creatures, mutated bodies, massive mechanical contraptions, and an endless field of stars (a prominent image in his first three films which then disappeared until The Straight Story). The themes resonate as well, with psychic visions, mystic dreams, and a pure-at-heart youth who must come into his own and face down decadent, sneering villains.
And yet the final film probably feels less like Lynch that any of his other features. The director has repeatedly bemoaned the fact that he didn't have final cut, but even in shooting style and performance his touch seems absent. The mise en scene is very standard, without many of the long takes, wide lenses or creative staging that usually characterize Lynch's films. Though the actors are mostly fine (especially comparing Dune to some other blockbusters), there is little real life in their characters, none of the magic or sense of discovery that the director usually draws out in performance - although Kyle MacLachlan (in his first Lynch film) does have small moments, grinning or staring in wonder, that demonstrate why Lynch would choose him as onscreen doppelganger. Lynch, who receives sole credit for the screenplay (he fell out with his Elephant Man co-writers in pre-production), was superseded in post-production by the producers, who worked with him to add egregious voiceover "thought bubbles" to almost every scene. These don't actually make the plot much clearer but they do add to the sense of tedium; in Lynch, whose loathing of over-explanation is legendary, they seem particularly out of place.
As briefly as possible, Dune follows Paul (MacLachlan), young son of a baron sent to the desert planet of Arakkis where giant sand worms are dodged while spice - the fuel and narcotic of the universe - is harvested. The wicked Harkonnen invade the planet, killing Paul's noble father (Jurgen Prochnow), and sending Paul and his beautiful, psychic mother (Francesca Annis, who looks the same age as MacLachlan but was in fact pushing forty) fleeing deep into the desert. There they meet up with the Fremen, a canny, blue-eyed desert people who recognize Paul as their long-prophesied savior (I think). He teaches them how to destroy with their voice, they teach him how to ride giant worms, and together they defeat the Harkonnen and the evil Emperor (Jose Ferrar). The first book launched a saga, and so a series of films were planned, but the movie received disastrous reviews and bombed at the box office (actually, to this day it is has grossed more than any other Lynch film, but on a $40 million budget that doesn't count for much).
Of interest mostly to fans of the book or Lynch completists, Dune nonetheless has some fascinating elements. Probably the most interesting - and most disgusting - are the Harkonnen, the film's hideous villains. Their bulbous leader (Kenneth McMillan) floats through the air, puss oozing from boils all over his face and body, and lusts after his nephew Feyd (Sting), who grins deviously and wears a speedo that look likes a large metallic aviator badge. Robin Wood has called Dune "the most obscenely homophobic film I have ever seen"; about the best that can be said in contradiction is that Baron Harkonnen's leering, predatory sexuality - most explicitly displayed in his carnivorous attack on a servant boy, whose bloody heart plug he rips out - is not the cause of his general moral depravity, but just one result of it. Beyond the decrepit, rotting flesh of the Harkonnen, the Lynch touch is most evident in the stubby Guild emissary, a kind of brain-as-body who travels in a giant test tube, and the premature birth of Paul's sister when his mother drinks the Water of Life.
What that Lynch touch meant in 1984 would change dramatically within a few years. At the time, with his penchant for body horror and gloomy, warped visuals, the director fit more snugly with contemporaries like David Cronenberg or Ridley Scott. In its design elements, the metallic sheen of the overall film, and general lack of relaxed levity or romantic sensuousness (although the latter starts to creep in through Paul's visions), Dune does seem of a piece with Eraserhead and The Elephant Man. There's a furrowed-brow intensity and lack of spontaneity to the movie which takes elements of Lynch's earlier films to their extreme. After its failure, it may have seemed time for a change. The film obviously burned Lynch, and he never tried his hand at spectacle again, nor did he bring any more famous adaptations to the screen. Yet the director was back on his feet in two years, with a project that would redefine his vision, distinguish him from other techno-surrealists of the time, and fix Lynch as a permanent feature of America's cinematic landscape.
Four features, eleven film projects, and nearly twenty years into his career, David Lynch struck gold. Eraserhead had become a cult classic, The Elephant Man had shown he could helm a straightforward studio picture, and Dune had backfired as a mega-budget blockbuster attempt. But Blue Velvet (1986) would establish Lynch as one of the most acclaimed American filmmakers, cautiously begin pushing him into the public consciousness, and most importantly for his future opportunities, establish the term "Lynchian" as a distinct flavor of American surrealism. After three very different films in which he attempted to balance personal vision and professional duty, Lynch had now found a voice that could both tell a compelling story and indulge his distinctive brand of weird creativity. Thirty years later, many still consider Blue Velvet Lynch's masterpiece - until recently, this was the Lynch most likely to show up on all-time "best" lists.
It isn't hard to see why. More than any other Lynch movie (except possibly Mulholland Drive), Blue Velvet is saturated in film history and mystique. It combines the postwar genres of film noir and flamboyant suburban melodrama, is scored and shot in romantic old Hollywood fashion, and offers memorable roles to sixties icon Dennis Hopper and Isabella Rossellini, daughter of Golden Age superstar Ingrid Bergman and iconic neorealist director Roberto Rossellini. Furthermore, Blue Velvet is both fascinatingly strange and relatively accessible - the bizarre moments take place within a comprehensible narrative framework (compare Lynch's later films) and recognizable universe (compare his early shorts and Eraserhead). Most importantly, Blue Velvet was celebrated for offering not just a personal vision but also a kind of cryptic social commentary - an alternately graphic and sarcastic subversion of Reagan's Morning in America. Frankly, the critics probably misunderstood Lynch's intentions on that front.
The story follows Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), a college student sent home when his father suffers a stroke; the first in a long line of amateur Lynchian sleuths, Jeffrey discovers a moldy ear in a field and starts prying information from Sandy (Laura Dern), a police detective's wholesome daughter. Before long, he is hiding in the closet of Dorothy Valens (Rossellini), a nightclub singer whose family has been kidnapped by the foul-mouthed, drug-addicted rapist Frank Booth (Hopper). Voyeurism quickly leads to an affair, endangering both Jeffrey's innocence and his life. Along the way, we get brilliant, what-the-hell sequences (my favorite being the visit to This Is It, a bar on the outside, shabby home on the inside, where obese middle-aged women lounge on a couch and Dean Stockwell lip-syncs to Roy Orbison) and a mood of panicky uncertainty - anything can happen at any time; no one is safe. (Actually, this perception is misleading: Jeffrey goes looking for trouble, and even the victimized Dorothy is portrayed as masochistic.) Unusually, the filmmaker's personal vision is expressed more in the what than the how; despite memorable visual flourishes and thick atmosphere, the surrealism is embedded more in the screenplay (scene-by-scene, not structurally) than the relatively restrained direction.
Critics comparing Blue Velvet to knuckleheaded action flicks and safe Oscarbait primarily noticed its darkness, but what most distinguishes Lynch's film from his earlier work is its sense of humor and light touch. Eraserhead certainly had an arch, off-the-wall hilarity but Blue Velvet is, at times, genuinely cheerful and pleasant (the humor stands out so sharply against the violence and sexuality that many mistakenly though Lynch was parodying rather than indulging the "corny" scenes, ignoring the earnest warmth of the puppy love and goofy jokes). Even more startling is the warmth of Lynch's visuals - Frederick Elmes' often sunlit photography and bright, vibrant colors have no real precedent in the director's beautiful but cold and claustrophobic oeuvre. This is also Lynch's first collaboration with composer Angelo Badalamenti (who would come to define the "Lynchian" score in a whopping twelve future collaborations). His music ranges from ominous to swooning to goofy, offering a rich sonic experience to complement the varied visual tones. For the first time, the morbid, gothic side of Lynch's personality is evenly matched by his chipper, genial demeanor, mostly hidden offscreen till now.
The characters in Blue Velvet are probably Lynch's most morally clearcut although there are hints of ambiguity beneath the surface (many hints pertaining to Jeffrey wound up on the cutting room floor). Yes, Jeffrey hits Dorothy (at her request) and lies to Sandy - but in the scheme of Blue Velvet's transgressions these seem minor and his heart always appears to be in the right place. Sandy's homelife is almost comically Father Knows Best...and yet. As Detective Williams, George Dickerson's delivery and facial expressions are very odd. His searching eyes seem to contradict his placid speaking manner, and the way he takes aim at Jeffrey in the climax before slowly lowering his gun and saying, with noticeable relief, "It's all over, Jeffrey" always makes me suspicious. I wonder if he's a corrupt cop ("It's horrible too," he says of his job), and if in the final scene he realizes he can't kill the boy in front of his daughter, and more importantly that the clueless Jeffrey may have done him a favor by eliminating the unpredictable Frank. This dark if entirely hypothetical reading serves as a useful reminder that even in the apparently straightforward Blue Velvet, much remains beneath the surface. Lynch had only begun digging.
For the moment, however, the director seemed more preoccupied with the cheerful and romantic qualities of Blue Velvet than the dark and dirty aspects. In the late eighties and early nineties, Lynch basked in the acclaim of his iconic movie while romancing its glamorous star. The "Lynchian" auteurist signature also had potential as a brand name and critics like Jonathan Rosenbaum and Richard Corliss even predicted Lynch would become a mainstream figure (a bit later, Rosenbaum would compare him, with not a little cynicism, to Walt Disney and Hugh Hefner). The pleasure of success showed up in Lynch's work: swooning television commercials, the playful and absorbing first season of Twin Peaks, and the gleefully young-in-spirit Wild at Heart riff on the brighter, more appealing side of his sensibility.
The Twin Peaks pilot (written by Lynch and Mark Frost, the series co-creator) did two things exactly right, which together ensured success for the near-future. The first hour cast the perfect bait with the Laura Palmer mystery because it contained so many questions (only some of which are answered in the pilot itself): who is she, why does everyone love her so much, why do her friends feel she was in trouble, who killed her, why did they kill her, how many people know about it? These questions were enough to pique viewers' curiosity but what really made them relish the show, and come back for more, was the environment: the thick Pacific Northwest atmosphere and especially the quirky characters who inhabit it. Most importantly, FBI Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan) arrives in the second hour like a breath of fresh air, able to alternate between childlike enthusiasm ("What are these incredible trees you've got up here?") and professional authority. He's at once an audience surrogate, a law-and-order figure to admire, and a lovable eccentric we're pleased to be amused by.
When the pilot premiered in early April, expectations were mixed. After a theatrical screening the previous fall, Connoisseur magazine had declared that the series would revolutionize television. Others knowingly observed that audiences preferred visual comfort food and predicted the show would not last in network prime-time. As it turned out, both prophecies were correct. However they viewed its chances, virtually everyone who wrote about television really, really wanted the show to succeed. And as far as the pilot is concerned, it did. The two-hour premiere of Twin Peaks aired Sunday, April 8 at 9pm EST and finished first in its spot and seventh for the week (by comparison, the final episodes would generally finish ninetieth - that's 9-0). Critics were elated and a Peaks feeding frenzy began in the media which wouldn't let up until the fall. This would prove to be the high-water mark of Lynch's career. About 10 million viewers bought tickets for his most successful film (Dune, ironically), but here were 34.6 million people tuning into his work on a single night. Perhaps he had truly found his medium? For the moment at least, Lynch was riding high.
Take, for example, the high-angle wide-shot of the Horne family's wacky dinner, the flashlight beam in the dark woods, a close-up of greasy hands on a doorknob, or a rising crane shot of a teenage girl dancing dreamily. Compare these touches to the previous installment (the first regular hour-long episode of the series, directed by Lynch's editor Duwayne Dunham), a very enjoyable if routine assembly of close-ups, as the actors deliver memorable one-liners and convey plot points. At its best - and sometimes even not at its best - Twin Peaks brought a sense of the cinematic moment, pregnant with feeling and suggestion, to the straightforward televisual drama/comedy. Some viewers checked out at this point - dismayed by the turn from atmospheric police procedural to wandering surrealism - but for those who stayed, this was what they wanted more of. This is also one of the most consistently funny episodes, but with an air of relaxed amusement rather than the strained silliness of the late second season: there are hints of darkness, tantalizing mystery clues, and affectionately intense adolescent romances, but every scene is fun. Lynch has created possibly the most consistently entertaining Peaks episode of them all.
If it weren't for the famous finale, the "Tibetan method" would probably remain what episode 2 is remembered for. Agent Cooper gathers the forces of law and order in a woodland clearing, lectures them on the plight of the Dalai Lama, and informs them that he's going to throw stones at glass bottles to determine the identity of the secret "J." in Laura's diary. The goofy sequence is a triple feat: it keeps viewers abreast of the various townspeople and their connection to Laura, it illustrates Cooper's offbeat techniques (and the town's bemused acceptance of him), and it demonstrates the show's quirky sense of humor. Furthermore, by mentioning that this method arrived in a dream, Cooper hints at where the episode is headed. In a dream sequence during the final minutes, we enter the "Red Room" for the first time (an outtake from the "closed" version of the pilot which Lynch just had to incorporate in the series proper). Those billowing red curtains, the dancing dwarf (Michael J. Anderson), the sultry ghost of Laura Palmer (or is it her cousin?)...TV would never be the same and Lynch's wry, mystical, what-the-hell-will-happen-next sensibility had finally captured the pop culture zeitgeist. How long could he hold on?
Situated in Lynch's filmography between the beloved Blue Velvet and reviled Fire Walk With Me, the significance of Wild at Heart (1990) could easily be overlooked. With its overheated, sunlit, Southern-fried flavor (and hip, postmodern sensibility) this is an unusual Lynch project, something of an outlier in his canon. It doesn't explore a mystery either - for once, a Lynch movie is not about finding out what has happened in the past, but rather enjoying the present and rushing into the future. Following the success of Twin Peaks, the film's Palme d'Or win at Cannes (a decision booed as well as cheered) solidified the director's media momentum and perceived relevance. Indeed, Wild at Heart appears as a forerunner of the nineties couple-on-the-run road movie genre, which was to become all the rage within a few years (Thelma and Louise, Natural Born Killers, True Romance). The film's sizzling sexuality and graphic violence, flirting with an X rating, also hinted at the restless energy of the decade's zeitgeist, as did a style far more impressionistic, random, and fast-paced than Lynch had employed before.
Lavishly treating Barry Gifford's novel of the same year, with one eye to Elvis and another to Wizard of Oz, the film traces the all-American journey of Sailor (Nicolas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern) across the South toward California. The story begins when Sailor savagely beats to death an attempted assailant; after serving time for manslaughter, he breaks parole with Lula, who flees her mother Marietta (Diane Lane), frequently depicted as the Wicked Witch. The two are hunted not just by Marietta but by an ill-defined, ominous criminal consortium embracing the degenerate overlord Mr. Reindeer (W. Morgan Sheppard), the sinister enforcer Santos (J.E. Freeman, announced by a mournful, foreboding Badalamenti music cue whenever he appears onscreen), the voodoo-inflected crippled killer Juana Durango (Grace Zabriskie) and her similarly unibrowed daughter Perdita (Isabella Rossellini), and most memorably, the ferociously wicked and manipulative Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe).
With this colorful cast of characters engaged in a series of memorable but often vague encounters with one another, Wild at Heart struck many critics as a vapid cartoon. The violence seemed meaningless, the plot a pretext for surreal non sequiturs, the postmodern allusions and fantastical whimsy signifiers only of the film's self-indulgent weightlessness. But in the film's second (and for me, more interesting) half, there are strong currents under the surface. As the pace slows and mood darkens, Wild at Heart begins to depict the tensions in Sailor's and Lula's purely impulse-driven relationship - if the various villains don't seem truly dangerous in the unreal world of the film, our star couple's self-doubts and restlessness pose more of a true threat to their ultimate happiness. Though he changed the ending of Gifford's book, sending the duo off with a traffic-jam rendition of "Love Me Tender" and a visit from the Good Witch herself (Sheryl Lee), for the first time Lynch has allowed doubt and dissolution (but not yet evil) to emerge from within his innocent characters.
The fulcrum of the film, in which our heroes discover that youthful zest is not enough, arrives at the scene of a car accident. One young woman (Sherilyn Fenn) stumbles through the wreckage, bleeding from the head and pleading, heartbreakingly, that no one tell her mother what happened. Sailor and Lula can only watch helplessly as she falters, shudders, and collapses, in the only meaningful and moving death depicted onscreen. The scene demonstrates their ineffectiveness, but more importantly it demonstrates that the carefree couple are fundamentally good people; as they try to coax the woman into their car rather than just riding off the night, it's the first time we've seen them concerned with someone other than themselves. In Lynch's world, goodwill is as haunted as it is laudable, invariably leading to pain and suffering. This is confirmed in the following scene when Johnnie Farragut (Harry Dean Stanton), the movie's most sincere and decent character, is pointlessly executed (although mercifully, we cut away at the moment he's shot, with Lynch already having cut much of the preceding torture sequence when test audiences stormed out of the theater).
Despite these intimations of ambiguity and emotional weight, Wild at Heart is not intended to be a deep film. Unapologetically seeking surface pleasures over darker insights, the film captures a moment in Lynch's career never to be repeated. As such, it is a transitional work in just about every aspect - either the first appearance of trends that were to continue, or the last appearance of tendencies which were to transform. In post-production especially (fast cuts, elliptical asides, lyrical effects), the film introduces a whole new tempo to Lynch's stylistic arsenal, sharply deviating from the relative classicism of Blue Velvet and his other early features. The eroticism of the movie is uninflected by the sexual guilt which haunted Eraserhead and Blue Velvet, while Lula's flashbacks and "alone" moments allow us inside a female character's consciousness for the first time (hinting at the more overtly feminine films dominating the second half of Lynch's career). On the other hand, this is the last Lynch feature (with the exception of The Straight Story) to adhere to one single, relatively comprehensible narrative line; it's also his final feature to create such a sharp good/bad dichotomy of characters. At the time, Wild at Heart's cheerful palate and slapstick mayhem was criticized by some commentators as a sign that Lynch was on his way to becoming a shallow sellout. They couldn't have been further off the mark.
Opening with a clip of Wild at Heart's Sailor and Lula breaking up over the phone, the rest of the performance will be sung rather than spoken, by Julee Cruise as she hangs from wires and crawls around in a car. Twin Peaks classics like "Falling" and "The World Spins" accompany other music from Cruise's 1989 album Floating Into the Night as well as a song featured in Wild at Heart (all written by David Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti). Onstage we see topless women crawling through industrial detritus, the Peaks dwarf sawing a log, and (my personal favorite) a giant, menacing, all-too-alive skinned deer carcass on stilts. Time called this "Lynch's most brazenly avant-garde work" and Beautiful Dark, a Lynch biography by Greg Olson, informs us that the performance "was received with varying measures of enthusiasm, respectful appreciation, skepticism, and repudiation." Irritation with Lynch was growing, a backlash building simultaneously with the crescendo of his popular acclaim. Implicit in the growing resentment was a feeling that Lynch should make a few more concessions to the audience he'd captured, lest he lose them. Viewers were tired of being frustrated and delayed; they enjoyed his kooky tangents, but not at the expense of conventional narratives and well-timed plot reveals. Should the director accommodate their impatience?
Instead of letting us know who shot Agent Cooper (let alone who killed Laura Palmer), Lynch wallows in perverse humor as an elderly waiter (Hank Worden) takes a full five minutes to place hot milk on the table, fumblingly hang up the phone, and get the bleeding FBI agent to sign his bill (Cooper, realizing reason is futile, gamely asks if gratuity is included). On the way out the door, he offers two or three thumbs up (I lost count). Cooper is then visited by a supernatural giant (another turn-off for viewers still clinging to the idea of a standard soap or cop show), recites his dying wishes to Diane on the tape recorder, and is finally rescued by his friends from the sheriff's office. He offers them a thumbs up as well. The rest of the episode proceeds at an only marginally escalated pace. Lynch has directed all his actors to pause, ponder, and generally take their time delivering lines; far from the jaunty pace and comfortable cutting of his previous Twin Peaks episode, in this installment the director prefers lingering on character moments and sticking with single shots for as long as possible.
There's also something notable about the sensibility at play: a certain ironic distance that characterized the series - and indeed all of Lynch's work up to this point - is disappearing. There's plenty of humor, of course, and moments where characters act bizarrely and we're encouraged to laugh at the situation. But somehow we are with these characters in a new way, not observing them affectionately but rather descending directly into their world and living side by side with them. The winking Lynch that critics loved in Blue Velvet and early Twin Peaks (and had begun to lose patience with by Wild at Heart) is letting down his guard. And something else: the murder of Laura Palmer is becoming more real. What was an occasionally poignant MacGuffin and mass media parlor game in the first season is treated at this episode's conclusion in vivid, gruesome detail as Ronette Pulaski (Phoebe Augustine), the other girl in the train car when Laura died, flashes back to the night of the murder. We hear Laura's blood-curdling scream, see her bloody face, and witness the roaring, demonic presence of Killer Bob (Frank Silva) huddled over her corpse. In both its comedic and horrific aspects, the episode challenges viewers from beginning to end. Unhelped by a new Saturday time slot, Twin Peaks' ratings would plummet the following week, and never recover.
Still, plenty of Lynch trademarks are on display. Visually, he's fond of uncluttered spaces captured with wide lenses and sticking with conversational two-shots a little longer than usual. Some unscripted touches were improvised after random inspiration, like the teleporting creamed corn (which eventually becomes "garmonbozia" in the feature film) and amusingly hard-to-operate hospital stools. Lynch's affection for dry, drawn-out comic setpieces is toned down from the previous episode but still present, including the aforementioned stools and some lengthy fly-swatting. Probably the most consistent Lynch touch is his inclusion of the supernatural, which most other writers and directors have been ignoring. Mrs. Palmer's psychic vision, Cooper's mystic dream, and the giant's ghostly visitation are now joined by Donna's Meals-on-Wheels visit to an old lady (Frances Bay, whose marble rye would be stolen by Jerry Seinfeld several years later) and her "magician" son (Austin Lynch, dressed and coiffed to look just like Dad).
Finally, and most importantly, every Lynch episode features an appearance by long-haired, menacing Bob (at least if you include then-set dresser Frank Silva's accidental reflection in a mirror in the pilot, which encouraged the director to cast him as Bob in the first place). Episode 2 features what to my mind remains the most terrifying Bob moment of all, as we see him casually stalk into the Palmer living room, crawl over the couch, and loom snarling inches from the lens, staring straight at us. It's a reminder that Twin Peaks is bringing its horror closer and closer to home; when Lynch shot Bob footage for the closed ending of the pilot (in case it wasn't picked up) he made Bob a creepy but completely human drifter hiding out in the hospital. As a marginal figure in the community, he fit in with previous Lynch villains like Frank Booth or the sneering proletarians of The Elephant Man. By making Bob a metaphysical rather than physical force, and placing him inside rather than outside the gates (no longer do Lynch heroes have to leave home to find trouble), Lynch is bringing the villain closer to viewers figuratively as well as literally. He will soon follow through on the implicit threat.
Watching Twin Peaks for the first time six years ago, I had managed to avoid most spoilers. I did discover several episodes in advance that Maddy (Sheryl Lee) would be murdered. Since she was staying with her uncle Leland Palmer (Ray Wise), it seemed quite possible that he would be the one to do her in - thus implying he'd killed his daughter Laura too. Already it made dramatic sense for Leland to be the killer; the excessive buildup to the reveal demanded a shocking twist, and making Laura's father a filicide certainly fit that bill. But I didn't want it to be him, mostly because this meant the fun show I'd been enjoying could no longer be appreciated on that level. Like many viewers (and in fact, Wise himself, who was sickened that the role he'd embraced was now an incestuous serial killer) I wanted to have my cake and eat it too: thrilling to the spooky atmosphere and hints of nightmare while still savoring the quirky, jaunty humor and winking playfulness. Lynch, however, is ultimately too honest an artist for that kind of easy satisfaction and so he descends into the abyss lurking just offscreen for so long.
What ends this haunting episode must still be the most brutal and disturbing five minutes in primetime history (strictly speaking, it should never have made it past the network censors; when aired on the BBC there was a public outcry). Alternating between oversaturated shots of a vicious, taunting Killer Bob (the spirit who possesses an innocent Leland, or personifies Leland's own evil, depending on your reading) and - in some ways even more disturbing - "normal" shots of Leland punching, strangling, and caressing his own niece, the scene is agonizingly stretched out. Some critics complained of the "loving" detail but they were allowing their own shock to obscure the view. For the first time in his work, Lynch places us directly inside the terrible suffering onscreen. There's no longer any ironic distance, voyeuristic viewpoint, or happy ending to save us. After reveling in the ugliness of the butchered Eraserhead baby, providing powerful guardians for the Elephant Man, and using Jeffrey as a buffer between the wholesomeness of Lumberton and the "outside" evil of Frank, Lynch finally casts aside all protective evasions. Evil is located in the home, in the family, and the bulwarks against its advance have been re-identified as its enablers. There is a horrible sadness and great maturity to Lynch's vision in this climactic episode, especially once we return to the solemn Road House, where a helpless Agent Cooper is consoled by a gentle old man. This is the point of no return for David Lynch: by taking this direction he lost his chance at a wide audience once and for all. But he also reached full maturity as an artist; going forward there will never again be a question of compromising his vision or avoiding its implications.
The real Lynchian touch is the final half-hour of the episode, and indeed the series, in which Agent Cooper disappears inside the much-discussed Black Lodge. This mysterious space turns out to be the Red Room from Episode 2, only cranked up to 11 (or 111). Completely scrapping the written sequence in order to improvise what we see onscreen, Lynch's imagination runs free with deadpan shapeshifting, backwards talking, reverse motion, trippy pyrotechnics, and pale-blue-eyed doppelgangers rustling out of strobe-blasted red curtains. But there's a method to the madness and the overarching theme is the dangerous proximity between good and evil. This isn't ambiguity per se (the contending forces are as clearly distinguished as ever), but duality: even Cooper can't escape his dark side, and only when he tries is he overtaken. This leads to one of the darkest, bleakest, yet emotionally rich Lynchian scenes as Cooper smashes his head into a mirror and is greeted by Bob, fully in possession of his latest human vessel. The cackling special agent has joined the legion of evil, and Lynch's world vision has completed a sharp turn since the happy ending of Blue Velvet, only compounded by the show's subsequent cancellation. The fragile walls of virtue have finally collapsed - the robins have disappeared, the prayer books have disintegrated - and for the first time since the amoral Eraserhead, goodness is defeated by its own fear.
As well as Lynch's most morally complicated work to date, the Black Lodge sequence of the Twin Peaks finale proved Lynch's most experimental cinematic venture since Eraserhead (putting aside Industrial Symphony No. 1, essentially a filmed stage performance). The sequence experiments in similar fashion to Lynch's first feature (distinguishing it from his later, more freeflowing avant-garde works), confined to a few spare sets and sharp design elements, employing deliberate, methodical cuts and character movement to cultivate a trancelike atmosphere, and juxtaposing a bewildered but unresisting protagonist with unpredictable and often animalistic characters. Pointing to a new direction in Lynch's experimentation, on the other hand, is the finale's anything-goes openness; with its billowing curtains, bold colors, and seemingly roofless construction, the Red Room never feels as claustrophobic as Henry's or even Dorothy's apartments. This is a dangerous space, but it is also free. Neither Bob nor new (and quickly defeated) archvillain Windom Earle (Kenneth Walsh) can ask for Dale Cooper's soul; only he, by fear and avoidance, can volunteer it. And so he does.
Early in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), Carl Rodd (Harry Dean Stanton) - the proprietor of the hilariously decrepit Fat Trout Trailer Park in scuzzy Deer Meadow (the polar opposite of lovable Twin Peaks) - makes two offhand statements that provide keys to the second part of the film. Asked to show murder victim Teresa Banks' (Pamela Gidley's) trailer to FBI agents he cracks, "That place is gettin' more popular than Uncle's Day at a whorehouse." We may chuckle at the sick joke until we reflect that, indeed, Teresa was killed for inadvertently revealing Laura Palmer's prostitution to her father (she had invited him to a orgy, not knowing their relationship) and that incestuous lust lies at the heart of Laura's suffering. Carl's second remark is more cryptic, arriving after a dirty, confused old lady arrives at his doorstep and then turns away without saying a word. Developing a thousand-yard stare, he swallows hard and mutters, apropos of nothing: "See, I've already gone places. I just wanna stay where I am."
For the rest of Lynch's career, the desire for safety, protection, and simple joy - a desire which has characterized all of his works up to this point - will continue. What changes from this point on is the impossibility of such security, based as it is on repression and denial. Fire Walk With Me goes out of its way not only to disturb the fragile lies its characters tell themselves (as will every single one of his features from now on, including even the gentle Straight Story) but to upset and provoke the viewer as well. Twin Peaks fans expecting a return to "the town of damn good coffee and cherry pie" (as the film's DVD case deceptively describes) were beyond disappointed, and new viewers were baffled as Lynch used the big screen to extend rather than explain the show's mythology. Fire Walk With Me focuses on Laura Palmer's final week, preceded by a half-hour mock-TV episode in which Agent Chet Desmond (Chris Isaak) and Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland) bumble around Deer Meadow (and a surreal sequence, with a bizarre David Bowie cameo, in which the nightmarish images of the Black Lodge penetrate FBI headquarters in Philadelphia).
Although this is Lynch's most impressionistic, unconventional narrative yet, the bulk of the film is structured around a growing sense of discovery, laid out over seven days and nights (this format - and the alternating scenes of decadence and alienation - echo La Dolce Vita, by Lynch's beloved Federico Fellini). We follow Laura's dawning realization that her molester, whom she's envisioned as long-haired, jean-jacketed Bob, is in fact her own father; we trace Laura's self-destructive behavior which escalates from drugs to prostitution to involvement in murder as the film progresses; and we slowly learn the extent of Leland Palmer's depravity - and responsibility for his own depravity (through flashbacks revealing that he slept with Teresa and then murdered her himself to prevent blackmail - no Bob in sight). The culmination of all these threads arrives on the penultimate night as Laura writhes in bed, attempting to seduce her rapist into revealing his true identity before horrifically holding her father's face in her hands.
Fire Walk With Me is about discovering the truth, no matter how painful it might be. Using a haunted painting of an open door as a metaphor, Lynch takes Laura, the audience, and himself on a troubled voyage into the darkness. Unlike Jeffrey in Blue Velvet or even Agent Cooper in Twin Peaks, Laura cannot avoid garmonbozia ("pain and sorrow") - she doesn't seek it out as they do, it is forced upon her. Her only choice is whether or not to become another cold, hard abuser (as her father, almost certainly molested himself, did), a gesture as self-protective as it is self-destructive. And yet after allowing best friend Donna (Moira Kelly) to be drugged at a sex club, Laura leaps to her rescue: she's isn't ready to open her soul up to Bob. A green ring which appears throughout the film, a ring that the one-armed man tosses to her in the train car (and that Teresa wore
The heartbreaking conclusion of the film can appear baffling as well, with its angels and bright light. Why is Ronette Pulaski saved while poor Laura can't be? Up till now, the movie has completely subverted the series' initial conception of a "corrupted" Laura who invited her own death and was somehow responsible for the sexual violence enacted upon her. Why then does the angel neglect her, and why is death her only opportunity for release? As with all the spiritual beings in the movie, the angels are symbols of a deeper psychological (or rather, spiritual) reality. Laura sees an angel disappear from the portrait on her wall (which has already been displaced by the open door); when Ronette prays in the train car, she begins her prayer with the word "Father..." The point is that Laura has no "Father" to pray to - her supposed protector is the very one who has violated her. While Ronette is visited by an angel, Laura is confronted with her own reflection, which morphs into Bob. And yet when she dies and finds herself sitting sorrowfully in the Red Room with Agent Cooper's hand on her shoulder, Laura is greeted by an angel.
Perhaps this is Laura's dying realization that she is not to blame for her suffering and is a good person after all, perhaps it is Lynch's pained admission that only by dying could Laura escape the evil that befell her father, or perhaps the appearance of the angel is simpler than that: perhaps this is a deeply personal gesture on Lynch's part, an act of charity and reconciliation, reaching out to embrace the character he created and infused with such suffering. In the world of his own characters, the filmmaker is God and so Lynch offers Laura peace as only a creator can. Coupled with the usually cagey director's statements about "falling in love" with Laura Palmer and "wanting to see her," this final scene - and indeed the whole project - feels like a personal act of penance for achieving popularity through her pain. As with all true acts of penance, this would have real consequences, and like Cooper trapped in the Lodge to comfort "our schoolgirl of the sorrows" (as Lynch biographer Greg Olson calls her), Lynch himself suffered for his act of generosity. Fire Walk With Me was reviled by critics, ignored at the box office, and rejected by most Twin Peaks fans. Yet Lynch emerged from the roller coaster ride of Twin Peaks a changed filmmaker, his dreams of mainstream success dashed but his commitment to express a darker, more sensitive vision of human suffering strengthened. It would be a while, however, before he could follow through: Lynch would not make another feature film for half a decade.
Buchanan is joined by several other Peaks supporting players including David L. Lander and, most notably, Miguel Ferrar as a producer, reprising the sarcastic disgust that characterized his FBI Agent Rosenfield. Other than perhaps Ferrar's character, there isn't a sane character onscreen, and if the fictional viewers of The Lester Guy Show find this amusing (when the TV camera falls over, a couple old ladies even turn their heads to catch the action; perhaps Lynch's fantasy about audience accommodation), real-life viewers of On the Air did not - or were never given the chance to. This final Lynch-Frost collaboration (after Twin Peaks and American Chronicles, a short-lived documentary series for Fox) made it only two weeks on ABC. Four of the seven filmed episodes were never even aired (remarkably, Lynch and ABC gave each other a third chance in 1999 and this time his project was dropped before broadcast). It was a poignant, inglorious end to Lynch's TV career although the charmingly wacky pilot - the only episode he directed - made TV Guide's list of 100 Greatest TV episodes.
As it played out, 1992 was the Bizarro World version of 1990 for Lynch - while in the spring of '90 he had arrived in Cannes with the most celebrated show on TV and a film that won the Palme d'Or, now he was back in France with a series that would be gone by the Fourth of July and a film that was booed at the festival and resolutely ignored by audiences and critics (at least by those who chose not to savage it) in its wide release. This was the beginning of Lynch's wilderness period; after so many predictions of mainstream success and brand-name recognition, the director would spend the mid-nineties far from the spotlight. He kept working - indeed his projects multiplied - but with few of the resources and none of the attention he had grown accustomed to. A series of commercials, music videos, and short contributions to omnibus films followed, and through these Lynch expanded and experimented with his aesthetic, developing a more impressionistic, fragmented style that would come to characterize his features as well. Even On the Air indicates this new direction, with its breathless pacing (previously, slow had been funny to Lynch), disregard for any last feint towards "realism," and manic visual touches like the pulsating superimposed objects observed by technician Blinky Watts (Tracy Walter). Blinky stumbles and fumbles through his duties because "he actually sees 25.26 times as much as we do" (apparently including floating, vibrating Santas). Those around him assume he's near-blind and are unappreciative of his extra vision. Possibly Lynch was thinking of himself.
Opium (1992) portrays addiction (to Yves St. Laurent, don't worry) with swooning romanticism while the Dangerous (1993) video teaser is Lynch's first animated work in over twenty years; its distorted manipulation anticipates future digital projects.
Undercutting initially innocuous dialogue and gesture with sinister music, and making the most of the satanic gleam in Jones' eye, Lynch fills us with a sense of anxiety; we nervously suspect a turn for the worse. The dialogue is constructed from fragmentary stories which we strain to string into semi-logical sequence. Darlene, threatened by the two men, escapes and we are left alone with them, but still can't get a bead on their real relationship. When Lou leaves, he drops his wallet into Moe's coat pocket, and then the police burst in, mistaking Moe for Lou and accusing him of his wife's murder. But how could Lou's picture ID implicate Moe? The strange behavior of the two characters, their weird symbiotic relationship, and the nature of Moe's arrest suggest that in fact Lou is a projection of Moe's shadow self, recalling Twin Peaks and pointing toward Lynch and Gifford's next collaboration on Lost Highway.
Around this time, Lynch shot two French commercials, Tresor Lancome Paris (1993) (continuing his penchant for overlapping images) and Barilla Pasta (1993), with Gerard Depardieu's cafe owner rescuing patrons with packaged noodles. It's hilariously un-Lynchian.
The Instinct of Life (1993), for Jill Sanders' Background, features colored lights, smoke, flashes, and ripples of light to create a luminous texture. Sun Moon Stars (1994), starring Daryl Hannah in another perfume ad, continues the gauzy mystical trend of Lynch's mid-nineties commercials.
The five years between Fire Walk With Me and Lost Highway (1997) marked the longest break between Lynch's features to date. Taken up with impressionistic, non-narrative projects in the interim, when he returned to a bigger canvas, the director had lost interest in expressing themes within conventional frameworks. If Fire Walk With Me was enigmatic and esoteric, Lost Highway is near-impenetrable: its plot reverses course, derails, and then seemingly syncs back up with itself, while characters and locations double, disappear, and switch places. On first viewing, the disparate pieces are only linked together by a mood of dread, a feeling of unexplained guilt. Yet if the narrative offers a maze, the film's form presents a united front. Like Eraserhead and Wild at Heart, this is as much an exercise in style as in story although Lynch can't escape his attachment to character psychology and mysterious plot twists.
In mood, the movie picks up where Fire Walk With Me left off. There's no cheerful Lumberton montage or Twin Peaks ensemble to greet us at the doorstep of Fred (Bill Pullman) and Renee Madison (Patricia Arquette), two mopey, reticent Angelinos who seem lost with one another, and therefore lost in the world. We will not be moving into an unmoored, decentered universe because we're already starting there; the robins flew the coop long ago and as for angels, the English translation of the film's city speaks for itself. Fred, impotent and suspicious of his wife, receives three videotapes in the mail: the first shot from outside his house, the second inexplicably sliding across the ceiling, the third revealing the mutilated body of his wife...with him crouching over it. We smash cut to a cop punching Fred and calling him "wife-killer" before transitioning to death row, where Fred is miraculously replaced inside his cell by Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty). The baffled authorities return Pete to his family in suburbia (only here to do we begin to see the sunnier side of life, though not for long). Pete begins an affair with blonde femme fatale Alice Wakefield (also Arquette), the wife of hotheaded criminal overlord Big Eddie, aka Dick Laurent (Robert Loggia), and she seduces him into robbery and murder. Abandoned by the teasing Alice in the desert, Pete becomes Fred once again, gun in hand, ready to do some damage.
Appearing several times throughout Lost Highway, always when an evil act is conceived or executed, is the Mystery Man (Robert Blake), a pasty-faced ghoul who seems to be the projection of Fred's own dark side, his "Bob" if you will - except that other characters can see him as well. While there appears to be a "real" story to decode here, it doesn't come with Rosetta Stone scenes like Mulholland Drive or even Inland Empire; the dream must be interpreted from inside of itself, because this time the entire film operates on an allegorical level. Essentially Lost Highway personifies and literalizes the rationalizations and evasions of someone who did indeed kill his wife (Pete is an idealized, innocent version of Fred, Alice a culpable temptress rather than undeserving victim). Lynch believes his screenplay, co-written with Wild at Heart's Barry Gifford, was subconsciously inspired by O.J. Simpson's apparent dissociation from his own crime (we won't even get into the Robert Blake connection). Yet the exact correspondences of Lost Highway, i.e. who's really who, remain elusive, at least to this viewer. Some characters, like Laurent, are probably "real," while others seem more like manifestations of Fred's mental checks and balances. Pete's protective parents (Gary Busey and Lucy Butler), for example, mysteriously and conveniently vanish from the room (and the rest of the film) when Big Eddie and the Mystery Man threaten their son over the phone.
Although it lost money at the box office and baffled most critics, Lost Highway developed a cult following that paved the way for Mulholland Drive's stronger showing. While the mindbending story was part of the appeal for young, hip viewers, the music and crime-genre trappings no doubt played their part. Badalamenti's score is mostly overshadowed by the Trent Reznor-produced soundtrack of experimental electronica and sinister rock, connecting Lynch with a new generation of viewers via featured artists like Marilyn Manson and Rammstein. It also helped that for the first time Lynch's teenagers aren't straight out of Archie comics - although Pete echoes fifties greasers with his leather jacket and mechanic's coveralls, his friends look and talk like rebellious nineties youths with the requisite hairdos, piercings, and outfits. That mid-nineties staple, the black video cassette, even plays a major role in the story; indeed, Lost Highway proves to be one of Lynch's few real time capsules, capturing the period it was made as much as the various American eras referenced throughout.
Lost Highway is also Lynch's entry into (or subversion of) a genre he may have helped inspire - call it the postmodern neo-noir, whose greatest practitioner Quentin Tarantino had proclaimed (after Fire Walk With Me), "David Lynch has climbed so far up his own ass that I have no desire to see another David Lynch film until I hear something different. And you know, I loved him. Loved him." Like Tarantino and his imitators, Lynch set his hip crime flick in L.A., a first for the director who'd moved there twenty-five years earlier (Lynch's subsequent feature would be his last not anchored in Hollywood). The goateed, bathrobe-wearing Andy (Michael Massee) could've wandered in from any Pulp Fiction knock-off, and the character's hilarious, squirm-inducing demise at the tip of a pointy glass coffee table sees and raises Tarantino's creative body count. However, like the much more straightforward L.A. Confidential (which came out later that year), Lynch isn't using the form to joke around or merely look cool. Cryptically or otherwise, Lost Highway is about the pain, denial, and disconnection simmering beneath the city of dreams - and the same would be true of Lynch's next mystery-in-L.A. project.
Usually cited as David Lynch's most atypical film, The Straight Story (1999) is in fact Lynchian in all but the most obvious ways. Mary Sweeney, Lynch's companion at the time, adapted the real-life adventures of Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), a septuagenarian Iowan who journeyed on a small John Deere tractor all the way to Wisconsin to visit his ailing brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton). But if Lynch didn't write the screenplay, it's easy to see what drew him to the story...and the character. Like Lynch, Straight was polite but reticent, eccentric and efficient, independent yet easygoing. The scenes in which the old man constructs a homemade trailer in his backyard must have reminded Lynch of his student days, building sets for Eraserhead in AFI backrooms, wrangling bemused onlookers until they were full participants in his personal drama.
A road movie that amusingly reverses usual conventions - age over youth, solitude rather than camaraderie, slow and steady instead of speed - The Straight Story nonetheless embraces the freedom of the genre, as well as the notion (stretching back to the myths of wandering heroes) that the journey brings wisdom. As with all great odysseys, Alvin must arrive at his destination only when the time is right and the correct path has been chosen. Several times he declines shortcuts or a helping hand, determined to complete this trip his "own way," knowing it's a metaphysical as well as physical voyage. He and his brother haven't spoken in years, and a certain ritual must be observed before the rapprochement can be achieved. Lyle too seems to understand. Sitting next to Alvin at film's end, he observes his brother's ornery contraption and only then do his eyes fill with tears. He gets it - the slow, painstaking journey is a kind of penance Alvin must pay, a purging, a purification.
There's something else touching about this moment. As Lyle stares at the tractor, it's invested with a new, deeply emotional meaning. No longer is it merely a vehicle to take Alvin from one place to another. Suddenly it's a physical manifestation of the love and pain that can't be spoken openly. Lyle's gaze, which the camera follows, liberates meaning in the machine. This is pure Lynch. His fascination with bizarre objects has led some critics to accuse the director of caring more about fetishistic totems than character, but this is backwards. Always, the object is a key or clue to character. Think the ear in Blue Velvet, the blue key and box in Mulholland Drive, even Laura Palmer's corpse in Twin Peaks: in each case, an ominous form serves as a gateway into deeper, painful human understanding. So it is with Alvin's tractor. As always, Lynch moves through the symbolic object to reach humanism.
The form of the narrative, a collection of incidents strung together by a simple device, also lends itself to Lynch's particular strengths. Most scenes are more concerned with capturing a moment through landscape, character interaction, or silent expression than with advancing the plot. Yet as always, there's a not-only-geographical progression at play. Initially Alvin is more observer than participant. He dispenses wisdom to a pregnant runaway and some cocky young bicyclists, listens to a hysterical motorist rant about deer, and parks his trailer outside a house but politely declines to enter when making a phone call. The turning point arrives when Alvin goes out for a drink with a local senior (Alvin orders milk, though later he'll tiptoe off the wagon for a touch of liquid courage in his brother's village). His drinking buddy wants to share war stories, and at first we suspect Alvin will avoid unloading his own. Instead, he opens up about a comrade killed by his own friendly fire. The conversation also references Alvin's past alcoholism and stormy relationships, and from this point on he'll be less guarded, a bit warmer in his interactions with others.
As for Lynch, this G-rated Disney film was basically the last pitstop on his route out of narrative, mainstream cinema. His next feature would become infamous as a mindbender (although it too would be seem relatively audience-friendly compared to what was coming), and never again would the director anchor his visual motifs, stylistic techniques, and affection for performers to a sturdy, straightforward narrative structure. Like Alvin's tractor parked in Lyle's yard, the reliable framework of narrative cinema had now served its purposes for Lynch. He was ready to look elsewhere.
There's something cathartic about the triumph of Mulholland Drive (2001). While no megahit, it was Lynch's first film since Wild at Heart to surpass its budget at the worldwide box office. Lynch received his first Oscar nomination since Blue Velvet and his first-ever Best Director award at Cannes, while sweeping numerous critics' awards. The reviews were overwhelmingly positive (even Lynch-hating Roger Ebert gave the film four stars and rather presumptuously "forgave" the director his previous work). Most importantly, Mulholland Drive's reputation has only grown with time. It is the second-ranked film on the They Shoot Picture Don't They list of most acclaimed 21st century titles, and #73 on the same website's all-time list, just edging out Blue Velvet. For a director who had spent the past decade in the doghouse, and whose suddenly beloved project had been rejected by ABC a quarter-decade earlier, this was a remarkable comeback. Why the turnaround?
Partly, of course, it's due to timing. Just as the commentariat was rooting for his success in 1990 and his downfall in 1992, by 2001 enough time had passed that critics and industry types were ready to welcome him back once again. But that cynical, superficial reading doesn't quite do the phenomenon justice. There is much in the film itself to explain its success. Perhaps unfairly, the relative lack of shocking violence and re-appearance of wholesome, sympathetic characters (at least for part of the movie) rehabilitated Lynch in some eyes, especially following The Straight Story's gentle humanism. Mulholland Drive, powered by Badalamenti's haunting score, also carried an emotional resonance many had missed in Lost Highway (where it admittedly required digging) and Fire Walk With Me (where it didn't, but the film caught viewers off-guard). With its Hollywood romanticism and romantic-tragic character arcs, Mulholland Drive is one of Lynch's most aesthetically satisfying works; although it has frustrated countless viewers with its byzantine narrative, those viewers are frustrated precisely because they invested so much in the story and characters.
The film began life as a TV pilot shot in 1999 for ABC's fall season. Why Lynch wanted to return to the network after Twin Peaks and On the Air is anybody's guess, but he was quickly reminded why he'd once sworn off television. Mulholland Drive wasn't even picked up as a TV movie let alone a series, dropped by nervous execs in favor of Friends clones with Smash Mouth-scored promos (Tad Friend's essential New Yorker article explains what happened in heartbreaking detail). The pilot begins with a car accident on the titular road. The sole survivor, a dark-haired woman (Laura Elena Harring), was about to be murdered in the back of a limo when drunken teenagers smashed into its side; now lost and confused, she stumbles into a house inhabited by bright-eyed, bushy-tailed Betty (Naomi Watts), hoping to make it big in Hollywood. Adopting the name of Rita, the amnesiac woman joins Betty in a hunt for her identity and history, culminating in the discovery of a woman's rotting corpse in a bungalow. Meanwhile, we meet various characters whose stories will presumably continue and intertwine throughout the series, most notably studio director Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux), whose project shuts down when he refuses to cast a girl suggested by a couple sinister Mafiosos (Dan Hedaya and Angelo Badalamenti). The pilot ends as Betty outfits Rita with a blonde wig similar to her own hairdo. Together, they stare into the mirror and we wonder where they will go next.
Lynch wondered too, and could not bring himself to abandon the project. When French financing came through he translated Mulholland Drive into a feature, recontextualizing the material from an entirely new angle. A "closed" ending shot as insurance in '99 had resolved nothing; like Twin Peaks' alternate pilot ten years earlier, this additional footage provided an excuse to visit a surreal locale (in this case Club Silencio rather than the Red Room). Lynch, and the abandoned pilot, needed more. So the director resumed shooting in 2000 with Watts and Harring, bringing other members of the ensemble on board for a brief scene or two. Rather than attempting to peremptorily close off these characters' stories (or, on the other hand, cutting their footage out of the feature and focusing exclusively on Betty and Rita), Lynch did something brilliant and unprecedented. Then again, it's hard to think of a precedent for Mulholland Drive's situation, in which a serialized story was forced into feature form. ABC had ended Lynch's series like Coleridge's "Person from Porlock" in Kubla Khan, butting in and destroying the dreamers' delicate reverie. And so, following this logic, Lynch quite literally reframed his lost story as a dream, bookending it with memories and experiences from the darker reality that fed into it (echoing one of his favorite films, The Wizard of Oz).
In the final forty-five minutes of the theatrically-released movie, Lynch inserts a lesbian lovemaking scene between the end of pilot and the beginning of the "closed ending," adding another layer to the relationship between Betty and Rita. Then we are in Diane Selwyn's world. Diane (whose name was attached to the degenerating corpse in the pilot) is also played by Watts, but she's worlds away from innocent Betty. Through flashbacks, we witness her romance with and rejection by Camilla (whose name was attached to the mobsters' hand-picked actress in the pilot). Camilla is played by Harring, now knowing and manipulative rather than amnesiac and helpless. Camilla becomes engaged to a hotshot young director (Justin Theroux again), and then invites her poor, jilted lover to a dinner party above Mulholland Drive. Diane gets out of the car in the same spot where "Rita" was almost murdered in the pilot; one character's literal execution becomes the other's emotional assassination.
The party is a crash course in humiliation for Diane: another guest (Scott Coffey) butts into her conversation to suck up to Camilla, the director's mother (Ann Miller, who appeared as a solicitous landlady in the pilot) is alternately indifferent to and irritated with her future daughter-in-law's ex, and a beautiful blonde (Melissa George, who played the mobsters' actress in the pilot) openly kisses Camilla. It's too much to bear, and so Diane hires a hitman (Mark Pellegrino, a hitman in the pilot as well) to kill Camilla. As the film reaches its climax, Diane is tormented by guilt and creepy old people (Jeanne Bates and Dan Birnbaum, who played a kindly couple getting off the airplane with Betty in the pilot). Aside from this terrifying final appearance, Lynch adds two more scenes with the elderly couple: an opening in which they appear side by side with a smiling Diane, and a scene spliced in after the airport, in which they grin at one another like waxwork caricatures. Overcome by these forces, Diane kills herself and we conclude with images of a blue monster behind Winkie's Diner and a blue-haired woman in the mysterious nightclub whispering, "Silencio."
Viewers tend to either love or hate the film's final forty-five minutes. This passage has been variously described as too pat or too cryptic, the key to unlocking the film's mystery or a glorious extension of those mysteries beyond explanation. In fact Mulholland Drive is one of Lynch's most hyperlogical films, at least among his later works - while a relationship between the various parts of Inland Empire and Lost Highway can be deduced (or invented), nothing in those films fits as neatly as the two parts of Mulholland Drive. Although not necessarily demanded by the "dream approach," Lynch goes the extra mile to link reality and fantasy by providing cameos for the supporting players of the pilot, in locations and at events that have dramatic resonance. He even segues from a new pre-credits sequence (a hauntingly jaunty jitterbug) into the pilot footage with a point-of-view close-up descending onto a pillow.
Some baffled critics in 2001 proclaimed loudly (and defensively) that Lynch was obviously just trying to confound viewers; further down the line, fans of the film have complained that "it's all a dream" grossly simplifies and trivializes a complex aesthetic experience. Of course, the "dream" correspondence between beginning and end needn't necessarily be a traditional, unconscious sleeper's dream - it could be a conscious projection (a sort of movie Diane writes in her head). Moreover, it doesn't have to be invented or motivated by any character onscreen; it's enough to read it as Lynch's own psychological allegory, or even some quantum-infused alternate reality. The literal operation of the "dream" is its least important feature. Far more crucial is the overwhelming feeling that the first part reflects and fantasizes the second (ironic, given that they were created in the opposite order). Regardless of how one chooses to motivate the split, this is in fact a very tightly structured work and the relationship between the two parts is quite clear. There is a good reason people read the final forty-five minutes as "real," and it has to do with how the material itself was conceived and executed. Content follows form.
Stylistically, although nineties network television and twenty-first century art film meld surprisingly well they do remain distinguishable. The pilot footage is softly focused, brightly lit, and faster-paced in performance and camerawork (though still far too slow for ABC). The cinematic bookends are richer, darker, and sharper. The new scenes breath more deeply, lingering over objects and luxuriating in mood, preferring abstracting close-ups to comprehensible medium shots. Diane's dilemma, caught between reality and fantasy, echoes the film's, volleyed between the comfort of television and the bolder challenges of a feature film - or more broadly, the expectations of Hollywood entertainment and the demands of Lynch's own creative vision. When considering the bulk of the movie (the footage shot for the pilot), it's worth remembering that the structure was imposed after the fact, however well it works. Jason Mittell has written a very illuminating essay discussing the emotional impact the pilot's "frustrated seriality" has upon us as viewers and indeed few other films have set up so much and then incorporated their inability to deliver into the narrative itself. Our disappointment when these threads and characters are abandoned echoes Diane's own personal and professional disappointment.
Moreover, Diane's sadness mirrors Lynch's own deep-seated frustration with the pilot's rejection - or, even further back, with the cancellation of Twin Peaks and On the Air, and the failure of projected Dune and Twin Peaks film franchises (forgotten amidst Fire Walk With Me's tonal re-emphasis and dangling plot threads is its intention to be the first in a string of Twin Peaks movies). Indeed, Lynch's entire career has been characterized by "frustrated seriality." The filmmaker has always had a deep hunger to build and explore his own world, but granted only - and briefly - by Twin Peaks, this desire suffered heartbreaking compromises, failures, and rejections. In Mulholland Drive he finally found a way to ease and reflect this pain. Aesthetically and narratively, Lynch's ninth feature synthesizes his film and television work, avant-garde and narrative tendencies, and ability to indulge in free-associational riffs while pursuing meaning, however mystical and mysterious. The film was also his swan song, closing a phase of his career on a high note. In the coming decade Lynch would display little interest in celluloid film, theatrical exhibition, big-budget production, or narrative storytelling. The gun blast that finishes Mulholland Drive, possibly his masterpiece, sounds the end of an era - and the beginning of a new age.
Indeed, at times the video functions like an occult object - you can imagine it turning up in a Ringu-like horror film where the act of watching it opens your mind up to demonic messengers; in its most electric moments, subliminal suggestions from some alien culture flicker through the images like that match burning a hole in the frame itself. Of course with seven "episodes" totaling fifty minutes, passages can seem baffling and alienating rather than enticing. This may be as much comedy as horror (think of Rabbits as a scrambled extraterrestrial attempt to reproduce "The Lester Guy Show" from On the Air). Even when its hypnotic power dims, the images onscreen feel so totemic and ritualistic that we're bound to keep watching. The film has even been used in test studies gauging reactions to extreme surrealism under different pharmacological influences.
Inland Empire (2006) is a trap. If you enter into its universe looking for a narrative throughline, however obscure, you'll be confounded by non sequitur sequences impossible to reconcile with one another (no wonder - the film was improvised by Lynch over the course of several years; he would sketch out dialogue and action the morning of the shoot, later interweaving the results with footage from different projects, like Rabbits, featured prominently throughout). Yet if you give up on comprehensibility and attempt to embrace Inland Empire as a stream-of-consciousness flow of spooky images, cryptic dialogue, and jarring noises, you'll be equally stymied because the film never stops dropping clues that there is some larger puzzle to figure out.
Critics compared Lynch's work here to poetry; as Jim Emerson says, "We recognize the individual units of meaning, but the grammar and syntax have been altered." True in a sense, but to manipulate the metaphor, the individual units of meaning are more often sentences than words. What Inland Empire really resembles is prose sliced up and reassembled into poetic patterns, so that even as we appreciate the flow of the language we feel ourselves searching for the narrative structure each line has been detached from. Though there are very fractured passages in the movie, in which images, locations, and characters collide, combine, and detach, most scenes tend to make some sense by themselves - it's only when they are woven into the larger fabric that they become truly confusing. Furthermore, even the splintered, fantastical sequences are set within a larger framework which is explicitly narrative.
Hollywood actress Nikki Grace (Laura Dern) is cast as Susan Blue in a Southern melodrama, only to discover that the film is a remake of another film, itself based on a Polish gypsy tale. All these productions have been "cursed." Little by little, Nikki disappears into her role - or rather, Susan Blue emerges into her consciousness and intertwines her own life with Nikki's (is Nikki really having an affair with her co-star (Justin Theroux), or is she just projecting his image onto her character's affair with a married man played by him?). This is clear enough for a while, although it doesn't explain the enigmatic prologue in which a blurred Polish man locks a "lost girl" (Karolina Gruszka) into a hotel room, where she tunes into a broadcast of Rabbits and snatches of the film we're to about to see.
But as Nikki's dysphoric dissociation grows more acute, so does the disorientation of the film (or rather, video; this was shot on a PD-150 which didn't even run at 24 frames a second let alone provide HD images). As if offering a microcosm of Lynch's entire oeuvre, the cuts become more elliptical, the superimpositions and cross-dissolves more frequent, the narrative stops more chaotic, the music and sound design more overwhelming, the storylines more blurred and overlapping. If in his last three films (excluding Straight Story), Lynch narrated two different plotlines, here there are at least three, possibly a hell of a lot more. And even within themselves, the three plots are not told chronologically. Repeat viewings unravel certain threads but don't reveal a single all-inclusive structure; the flow of the experience feels more like channel-surfing or browsing the web than taking in a stand-alone film.
The movie has been criticized for its look, and indeed the haunted elegance of Blue Velvet or Mulholland Drive has been fully exchanged for a gritty, underlit, handheld aesthetic. This does reflect an overall cultural trend: whether helming blockbusters or indies, contemporary directors tend to favor a "realistic" style utilizing flat colors, shaky camerawork, and rapidly intercut close-ups. However, unlike more mainstream films that use these tools to signify a phony "realism," there is a sense of mystery and discovery to Inland Empire's images. Using the freedom of the home movie camera to truly explore the world onscreen, Lynch demolishes the limits of classical filmmaking, which enchant through enclosure.
Formally, Lynch's final feature film is as avant-garde as his debut but in a completely opposite manner: from cold, gorgeous black-and-white celluloid to the bleeding colors of digital video, from a single simple story to an insane mashup of countless narrative threads, from claustrophobic sets to boundless globe-trotting. If Inland Empire's ending echoes Eraserhead's, the similar spiritual message is conveyed through very divergent tools and forms of identification. Both Henry and Nikki kill their tormentors, and then embrace young women in a blinding light; but the neurotic man purges his physical limitations by murderously mutilating his helpless spawn, while the adventurous woman assassinates a sinister man wearing her own face.
The slower pace and absence of distractions allows us to immerse ourselves even more fully in the world of Inland Empire, in which an innocent girl is hypnotized by a watch-wielding sleazebag at an apartment party, a slurring movie star indulges in garbled crosstalk with her husband while lying on a hotel floor, and a despoiled Hollywood prostitute reminisces about her painful past while her indifferent interlocutor can only offer "I like pancakes" in response. While I am a fan of Lynch's increasingly free-form style and willingness to plunge ever-deeper into darkness and mystery, it's also nice to revisit his penchant for menacing, never-quite-fulfilled suggestion. Lynch is unmatched at cultivating an air of anxious anticipation; we relish genuinely not knowing what will come next. Discovering this feature on the DVD during my marathon was like finding an extra easter egg when you think the hunt is over. It seemed like my last chance to freshly sink into his world in lieu of a return to feature filmmaking - at least until I found out Lynch will be taking the same approach to the long-lost deleted scenes from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Pinch me, I must be dreaming...
Taken from Lynch's 2011 album of the same name, the video's hilarious decadence is as seductively energetic as it is absurdly trashy. Cut from the same cloth as Blue Velvet's "This Is It" club and Fire Walk With Me's "Pink Room" - sans the assertion of apocalyptic evil - Crazy Clown Time depicts hedonism as probably painful (at least for the guy who lights his mohawk on fire), definitely degrading, and quite possibly a whole lot of fun. Like an R. Crumb cartoon come to life with its buxom, bare-bosomed bohemian gals and jacked-up, pea-brained misogynist muscleheads, this is a far cry from Lumberton's and Twin Peaks' sweet fifties-styled high schoolers. Personally, I find this the most hilarious, jarring, and visceral work Lynch has created since Inland Empire; discovering it while channel-surfing in the summer of 2012 I could only shake my head and mutter, "Damn, he's done it again!"
I was going to conclude by discussing the calm and eerily beautiful video I'm Waiting Here (2013), which uses a driver's POV of a long, winding stretch of desert road to accompany Lynch's musical collaboration with Lykke Li. Unfortunately as it turns out, Lynch himself didn't have anything to do with the video which was conceived, photographed, and edited by others, including Li herself. Nonetheless, it's a nice tribute to the director - whose hellish inner visions have been accompanied by a restless longing for open spaces - and an appropriate image to end on. The video (which we can safely say echoes the Lynch of Wild at Heart, Lost Highway, and The Straight Story) closes with our invisible car pulling off the road at dusk, finding - for the first time - another car, an unknown human and mechanical presence in the eerily empty landscape. Who knows what adventures and mysteries await as we enter into the night? Only the coming years will tell.
Next week I will follow up with part two of this retrospective which will cover "the forest" - that is, the transformations and developments that took place over Lynch's career as a whole. See you on the last day of June and the close of David Lynch Month!
If this wasn't enough for you, there's more. I've covered many of the titles here before, often at greater length and with a more personal angle. Recently, I discussed Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me in a four-part conversation with Tony Dayoub on To Be (Cont'd). Here are the previous reviews: Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Lost Highway, Inland Empire, Twin Peaks pilot, Twin Peaks (season 1 episode 2), Twin Peaks (season 2 episode 1), Twin Peaks (season 2 episode 2), Twin Peaks (season 2 episode 7), Twin Peaks (series finale), The Short Films of David Lynch (Six Figures Getting Sick/The Alphabet/The Grandmother/The Amputee/The Cowboy and the Frenchman/Premonition of an Evil Deed). I've also collected a series of images from Twin Peaks (season 2 episode 7), rounded up all of Lynch's posters, written about the critical reception of Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, my initial reaction to Twin Peaks after finishing it for the first time, and the media frenzy surrounding the series in 1990. Finally, I included The Elephant Man in my Remembering the Movies series which examined particular weeks in cinema history.