This is my first entry in David Lynch Month. It combines a guide to the upcoming month, a memoir of my own Lynch journey, and 135 images from his films.
Each week I will pose a question to readers related to my latest post. This week's "Question in a World of Blue" is: How did you first discover the work of David Lynch? You can respond in the comments below or on your own blog (please tag this entry in your response).
This spring I've been completely immersed in the universe of David Lynch. It started in January when I read a book about Twin Peaks and my interest in the series was renewed. I started listening to Peaks soundtracks and podcasts all the time, devouring articles and essays on the subject, and re-watching the entire series. From there I broadened my scope to all of Lynch's work, initiating a marathon viewing of all his films and then returning to many of them yet again. The results have been unfolding for the past month (as Tony Dayoub and I corresponded on the film Fire Walk With Me), but will escalate in June. Every Monday I'll post a new, meaty post on David Lynch and his work.
First up will be "Gone Fishin'," a massive collection of quotes from news articles, TV reviews, and film essays on the Twin Peaks phenomenon. These are selections I gathered while doing my own research for the correspondence with Tony, and taken together these disparate sources tell a fascinating tale about one of the most innovative shows of all time, how its downfall came about, and why its deeper qualities took time to appreciate. This will post next week, Monday, June 9.
A week later, on June 16, I will unveil "Take This Baby and Deliver It to Death," my first video essay in a year and a half, a non-narrated impressionistic tribute to themes and motifs in Lynch's work, anchored around the endings of Eraserhead and Fire Walk With Me. It builds off the observations in the previous post, as well as my conversation with Tony about the fate of Laura Palmer and how this twist impacted not just Twin Peaks but Lynch's work as a whole.
June 23 brings the first part of my comprehensive Lynch retrospective, "The Eye of the Duck," which discusses everything in the director's canon - features, shorts, TV episodes, music videos, commercials - on an individual basis. Each title will be accompanied by a screen-cap; one of the most enjoyable parts of preparing this month was gathering images from the visual wealth of Lynch's filmography.
Finally, on the last day of June I will share the second part of my retrospective, "It's a Strange World," an essay examining the abrupt shifts, subtle reversals, and gradual evolutions in the Lynchian touch, ranging from narrative strategies and thematic concerns to visual motifs and directorial vision. This is the "forest" piece, while the previous week's essay will cover each "tree." While the depth and diversity of the director cannot be summed up in a single essay, there are several very strong narrative arcs encompassing his oeuvre, and they shed light both on his work as a whole and the individual films.
For now, by way of setting the stage, I want to offer my own personal musings on David Lynch and my journey of discovery with his work. When I discuss his films at the end of the month I will be analyzing, contextualizing, and connecting them, but I won't really be relating them to myself. So I will do this below, without any major spoilers (my upcoming posts are another story, but I'll note which works I'm spoiling beforehand). If you're unfamiliar with Lynch, but curious, the rest of this post is a good place to start.
Following the memoir is a smorgasbord (careful, Audrey) of 135 Lynch screen-caps - twelve from each feature film, three from each Lynch-directed Twin Peaks episode, and a sampling from his shorts (plus one image taken from a promotional show). Lynch's work is a treasure trove of haunting, disturbing, and beautiful images, but just as amazing as his killer eye is the breadth of his ability and technique.
My Journey into Lynchland
As a precocious movie buff, I was aware of David Lynch but only as a blip on my cinematic radar. What I knew about his work - especially the harsh poster and images from Eraserhead - suggested a hard, formalist, grungy urban look that wasn't really my aesthetic at the time (meanwhile, descriptions of Blue Velvet's "suburban expose" didn't sound very original). I wouldn't have been allowed to see his movies at that tender age so perhaps it's a moot point, but Lynchian cinema was not a forbidden fruit I hungered for yet. I did see and like The Elephant Man as a child, but it did not lead to more.
During this very period, however, as I combed movie books and picked up names of directors and their films, Lynch's own work was undergoing a transformation. The cold industrial feel of Eraserhead and sharply contrasting classical images of Blue Velvet were giving way to a more openly impressionistic, romantic visual palette. If his films had always used images from dreams, now they were beginning to feel like dreams themselves. I don't remember hearing or seeing much about Lost Highway but I do remember catching a TV commercial for Mulholland Drive my senior year of high school. As mysterious images and melancholy music floated across my screen I thought, "Boy, does this look like something I want to see!"
For whatever reason (probably because it didn't play at local theaters long enough) I didn't see the film in 2001 - in fact, sadly, a retro screening of Mulholland Drive in L.A. a couple years ago remains the only time I've seen Lynch on the big screen. I would catch the movie a year after its release on DVD; it was one of those films, like Pulp Fiction or Donnie Darko, that seemingly every college movie buff had in their collection. I guess I knew the "twist" ahead of time, because I overheard someone explaining how the final third of the film relates to the rest. I always wonder if I would have interpreted this myself; regardless, I fell in love.
As, I suspect, with most Lynch fans of my generation, Mulholland Drive is the one that got me. I responded immediately to its sense of exploration - a feeling that something exciting, beautiful, and perhaps terrifying lay just around the corner. The short fragments that didn't quite add up or follow through only added to the sense of riches (later I would learn these were supposed to be subplots in an abandoned TV series); here was a movie that seemed to be dozens of movies in one, each snaking off into the distance. The final third, with its tragic weight and promise of "decoding" the rest of the film, was both intoxicating in its hints and liberating in its continuing mysteries.
Soon after my first exciting encounter with Lynch's surrealism, I borrowed a copy of Blue Velvet, only to be disappointed. This experience echoed my discovery of Hitchcock a few years earlier, taken with Spellbound and Vertigo before feeling frustrated by Rear Window and North by Northwest. In both cases, what caught me in the first films was the dreamlike atmosphere, the sense of depths we could only peer into, of psychologically-charged mystery with a touch of the supernatural. Mulholland Drive and Vertigo both had secrets to convey, and we leaned forward to catch them. By contrast, Rear Window and Blue Velvet weren't very hard to "figure out"; more damningly, their mood seemed to me less sensual, less magical. I responded to Dennis Hopper's energy but otherwise the film let me down.
That was it for a good five or six years. My first real foray into Lynch had been generally positive (I usually judge by high water marks) but I didn't go any further. Why? I've always been a cinephile fascinated by breadth more than depth, and this was particularly true when I was younger and still had so much on the horizon. Typically I would view at least a film or two from a major director, but rarely was I compelled to explore more - there was too much to see, and I relished sampling some of everything, dipping into all eras and genres to taste as much cinematic diversity as I could. Plus, within a year or two of seeing Mulholland Drive, my cinephilia cooled in favor of a passionate pursuit of music.
A couple years into Netflix, when my viewing habits had picked up, I finally decided to give Twin Peaks a spin (around the same time I saw Eraserhead, which both impressed and disgusted me). While never a big TV watcher, Lynch's popular but short-lived show sounded like it would be up my alley. I still counted Mulholland Drive as one of my favorite films and was fascinated by the themes and location of Twin Peaks. It even resembled an idea I'd tossed around years earlier, in which a teenage boy befriends a troubled girl in an isolated mountain town; in the end she disappears, presumed dead. When I was a little kid I was always haunted by an image or scene - inspired either by a dream or TV movie (it wasn't Twin Peaks) - in which a girl simply vanishes one day, leaving friends and schoolmates overwhelmed by their sense of loss.
Initially, the first episode of Twin Peaks didn't blow me away (at the time, the movie-length pilot was unavailable, so I had to start with the first hour-long installment). It seemed dated in not particularly charming ways, with brightly lit sets, melodramatic music, and some arch performances; I noted that Lynch did not direct the episode and wondered if he'd merely conceptualized the show and handed it off to others. There was one moment in the episode, however, that struck me to the marrow and made me shout so loud my roommate heard me: when Laura Palmer's mother, comforted by a friend in her grief, widens her eyes and gasps in horror...and we cut to a completely random shot of a long-haired man staring directly into the camera while crouching behind a bedframe. I hadn't been this frightened by anything since the Winkie's dumpster scene in Mulholland Drive and at that moment I knew the show would be worthwhile.
The next episode confirmed these suspicions with an alarmingly offbeat opening dinner, capped by the wonderful credit "directed by David Lynch." The episode was as visually inventive and rich with atmosphere as I could have hoped, and it concluded with a sequence of visionary impact as the lead investigator dreamed himself into a Red Room with a dancing dwarf, beautiful girl, and eerie shadows floating across the wall. I knew I would LOVE Twin Peaks, but also that I had to stop watching until I could get my hands on the pilot and start it right. The opportunity finally arrived a year later, and at that point I plowed through the entire series in a matter of weeks.
While I can remember the thrilling sense of discovery, I wish I could recall more of my precise reactions to plot twists and character moments (they've been crowded out by subsequent re-viewings and endless discussions). I do however very strongly remember the revelation of Laura's killer; my reaction has colored everything I've written or thought about the series since, and indeed has informed my view of Lynch's work in its entirety (I'll discuss this more specifically when the episode comes up in my retrospective piece). After finishing Twin Peaks, I rented the subsequent prequel movie, knowing very little except that it covered the days before Laura Palmer died and had been very unpopular. I wasn't prepared for the impact it would have on me.
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me elated and upset me. My reaction very much echoed Roger Ebert's infamous dismissal of Blue Velvet, except instead of dismissing it I felt compelled to both celebrate and question the movie. I immediately headed to this blog (then in its infancy), and rapidly wrote out a very mixed review of Fire Walk With Me. Even now, I think it's one of my strongest posts - it was probably the first response I wrote that really came from deep down. Within a day, I had realized that the power of the experience overwhelmed my objections to the film (which have softened with time) and I was willing to declare it a great movie and defend it from the vicious reviews it had received in 1992.
The next month or two would be spent in an obsession with Peaks and Lynch, reading all the material I could get my hands on and finally delving into his filmography for the first time. I rewatched Blue Velvet (admiring it more than before, I still didn't love it), was entranced by Lost Highway, and felt ambivalent about Inland Empire (I also viewed Wild at Heart but wasn't compelled to write about it). These viewing experiences stood apart from my regular run of movie-watching, enjoyable as that was - Lynch engaged me on a more fundamental, subconscious level. I blogged more about him than any other director in my first few months, including an episode guide to Twin Peaks. Re-starting the whole series a few weeks after finishing it, I meticulously wrote up each chapter in the hunt for Laura's killer (after the murderer was discovered, I leaped forward to the finale).
As all crazes do, this one eventually cooled, although the following spring I would view a few more Lynch items, including a couple documentaries and his short film collection (which, until this month, would remain my final Lynch review). In the coming years I would always be up to discuss Lynch's work, to occasionally pay tribute to him (especially Fire Walk With Me) as part of the cinematic pantheon, and to rewatch Mulholland Drive and, less frequently, Blue Velvet. Notably I would not return to Fire Walk With Me, much as I would sing its praises, for five years - my initial impression had been so powerful that I wanted to allow the experience to linger as a memory. Last fall while screen-capping favorites in my collection, I finally had a second viewing.
It was only a few months later that the lid came of my Lynchophilia - and no previous excursion into his work compares to the time, research, and mental energy I have devoted this spring. I will cover this more deeply in my introduction to next week's piece (an exhaustive collection of quotes about Twin Peaks) but once again it was Twin Peaks and Laura Palmer who reeled me back in to the world of this director.
So that's how I came to love Lynch, and a bit of why, but let me expand on that why for a moment before letting his images speak for themselves (they are indeed the most powerful explanations possible). Putting aside the question of what is and isn't a dream in his movies, few other filmmakers are as capable of making everything in their work dreamlike. As someone fascinated by dreams and myths, and the figures like Carl Jung who explore and relate them to the emotional undercurrents of our personal lives, I couldn't help but respond to Lynch. What is most important to me about his work is the ability to transcend divisions between "reality" and "myth," to recognize the power of magic and the uncanny, and use them not as an escape from life but as a way to face it more deeply.
I like that Lynch is at heart a conservative (his Reaganite political conservatism has waned over the years, but I'm talking about how he views the world on a more fundamental level). He's frightened by the darkness - which means both losing the flavor of life and overwhelming oneself with too much of it - and yet he plunges into the Wild Wood anyway, facing up to demons both outside and inside. I like that he is a mystic in an increasingly materialistic age (when even the magical realm of cinema has been thrust into a paradoxical and unsatisfying mix of drab faux-realism and computer-generated weightlessness). He is someone who not only believes in a spiritual realm somewhere "out there," but actually makes his own work a conduit to that experience. I like that he retains a sense of humor, that his work contains wickedly funny moments that catch you off-guard and thus make you laugh all the harder even if his art is deeply serious (his earnest affection for his characters, even in their corniest moment, is something else I like - all too rare in this age of snark).
Most of all, of course - because none of the other stuff would matter otherwise - I like that he is a great director. As someone who has struggled with craft and creativity over the years, I can't help but admire someone who intuitively knows exactly what works: how to place the camera, where to cut, how to draw the perfect performance out of an actor, what design elements to use (and often create himself) to pull the audience further into his strange world. Lynch is a meticulous craftsman, a man who took a half-decade to make Eraserhead, as much a matter of perfectionism as budget. This makes it all the more interesting that in his recent work, particularly the baffling yet alluring feature Inland Empire, he has chosen rough-hewn digital textures which allow him more freedom than discipline. That's one final thing I just love about Lynch: his continued experimentation, a willingness to go where the future of the movies lies, into the realm of personalized, online, boundless cinema that breaks out of its gilded celluloid cage and into the world, like Laura Dern at the end of Lynch's final movie, leaping into the light to personally embrace the viewer.
Here are the images. I hope you relish them as much as I do. And see you next week...
This visual tribute contains a major spoiler for Twin Peaks (stop at the picture of the guitar player to safely avoid) and a minor spoiler for Mulholland Drive (stop at the picture of the cowboy to safely avoid).