David Lynch: director of dreams

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Art Fag
David Lynch: director of dreams

Guardian UK

Nicholas Lezard

February 17, 2012


Let us start, as David Lynch himself did, with Eraserhead . I first saw it on the college film circuit in 1981, four years after its UK release – but I had been haunted by it long before seeing it. Even the small advert in the Evening Standard – a tiny version of the poster, with Jack Nance's appalled, ambiguous gaze, and that haircut, with, of course, its baffling title – compelled, and made me realise that I was going to have to see it one day. When I was old enough.
For it was an X certificate (now demoted to a 15), and it contains horrors, most notably the grossly deformed baby sired by the hapless Henry, which in the final scenes is subject to a gruesome dissection, leading to some kind of apocalypse. As a distillation of male fears about parenthood, it is unrivalled, and some people have noted that during the film's long gestation – five years; the budget was so low that for a period it was supplemented by, of all things, a paper round – Lynch became a father to a girl with club feet. Lynch is understandably anxious for people not to make any unwarranted connections between the two. (The daughter herself shrugs it off quite plausibly.)

Not that this is what the film is wholly about, although you might be keen to have some handle with which to get a grip on this oneiric work of art. If ever there was a director who put dreams on to the screen (as the chimpanzee narrator of James Lever's fake autobiography, Me Cheetah , says, all films are the audience's dreams, projected) without trying to impose a coherent, readily graspable narrative order on them, it is David Lynch. And even then we are unsure what is dream and what is reality. This is at least the most consistently abiding characteristic of dreams when we are experiencing them, and in his book Lynch on Lynch , in which the director talks engagingly, if not always revealingly, about his work, Chris Rodley (who edited the book) puts it very well: that the borderland between dream and reality in his work (although he's specifically talking about Mulholland Dr. ) is "a badly guarded checkpoint where no one seems to be stamping passports".

Lynch started off as an artist, and when you remember this, his films make much more sense – if that is the word. One of the things you notice, secondarily, about Eraserhead is how little dialogue there is in it, which means that every line has an intensity and a purpose that would have been absent from a more wordy film. About the longest speech in the film is delivered by Henry's girlfriend's father, who pops into the living room to say this (up to this point, the film is not yet about the fear of fatherhood; it's about the exquisite anguish of meeting your girlfriend's parents): "I thought I heard a stranger! We got chicken tonight! Strangest damn things! They're man-made! Little damn things! Smaller than my fist!" (I put exclamation marks after each clause to recapture Allen Joseph's extraordinary delivery, like Harry Dean Stanton on crystal meth.)

The scene proceeds with Henry trying to carve a quail-sized bird, which starts moving its legs and leaking quantities of what we assume is blood. It's an image that stays with you for ever.
The point is that Lynch prefers the image to the word. His favourite directors, he has said, are Tati , Herzog and Kubrick , all of whom can be said to use silences of varying lengths to great effect. (Although the relentless background noise of his films, continuous in Eraserhead , sporadic in, say, Blue Velvet , most notably as a precursor to sexual violence, shows how interested he is in different kinds of silence: the "room tone", which film-makers have to be very careful to match when shooting the same scene from different angles.) He is also a great fan of Francis Bacon, which comes as no surprise when you look at the mutant baby in Eraserhead , which recalls nothing so much as the painter's Three Studies for Figures at the Base of a Crucifixion . His first, film-school work, Gardenback , "unfolded from this painting I'd done", and when Fox offered to get it made on condition that the 45-page script be expanded to 120 pages or so, Lynch, by his own account, had enormous trouble understanding the concept of dialogue. "You have to have theses scenes between the people. And they have to talk," explained his teacher; "and I still didn't know what he was really on about," Lynch says.

The surprising thing about Eraserhead , though, was that it offered Lynch a remarkably swift entry into the mainstream. Well, his next film, The Elephant Man , may not have been exactly mainstream – after all, it offered another extravagantly malformed human, this time in a starring role – but it did have a story, and indeed dialogue, and one does not at all get the sense that Lynch was the wrong director for the job. He might have been for his next film, Dune , an adaptation of Frank Herbert's sci-fi novels, which lost an awful lot of money and, when rereleased in an extended version, prompted Lynch to credit the work to "Alan Smithee", the pseudonym used by directors to distance them from work with which they do not want to be associated.

At which point it would have been tempting to file Lynch under the category of directors who had taken the Hollywood shilling and been chewed up by the system. But then he made Blue Velvet .

I have yet to hear a bad word about Blue Velvet (1986) and you are not going to find one here. Any suspicions that Lynch's earlier (or indeed later) obscurantism or surrealism might have been nothing but enigmas without depth evaporate in the face of this masterpiece. "A new director had made the medium alive and dangerous again," wrote a hitherto-unimpressed David Thomson in his Biographical Dictionary of Film . No one who sees Dennis Hopper as Frank, inhaling god-knows-what from his oxygen mask (certainly not oxygen; more like the essence of all drugs, or all evil), and fucking Isabella Rossellini while screaming "Mommy!" is going to forget it in a hurry. But then neither does one forget Laura Dern in her pretty-in-pink small-town American dress, or Kyle MacLachlan's puzzled and increasingly eroded innocence. ("Why are there people like Frank?" he asks at one point, and we have no answer.)

Nor does anyone forget the ear on the lawn, crawling with ants, near the beginning of the film. At this point the literate cineaste will have already noted that the film is very conscious of being part of, and alive to, the history of the medium: the ear itself recalls the early Buñuel masterpieces L'Age d'Or and Un Chien Andalou ; a little earlier on, an old man keels over while watering his garden, and a little dog plays in the hose's jet. One of the first films ever made was L'Arroseur arrosé , or the waterer watered, which involves nothing more than rudimentary slapstick with a hose, but from which it could be argued that all cinematic slapstick arises. And when we think back to Henry's Chaplinesque walk in Eraserhead , we realise that Lynch has been thinking about film the whole time, about what the camera lens can show us – and how complicit we are in its gaze. Shortly after MacLachlan, from behind the slats of a wardrobe door, has been watching Rossellini being more or less raped, he tells Dern that "I'm seeing something that was always hidden". So are we. Lynch himself has said of Henry's very peculiar look, his constant scrutinising, in Eraserhead : "Everything should be looked at. There could be clues in it."

Which prompts the question of what clues there are, and to what, in his films. When the Observer stuck a copy of Mulholland Dr. on to its paper to increase circulation – a ploy which worked in my instance – the website offered a synchronised deconstruction-cum-explanation of every scene in the film, to be read while you watched it. This is the kind of ecstatic geekery Lynch's films can unleash; but it is not something to be scorned, even if you are among those people who think that his work constitutes nothing more than a shoal of red herrings, or promissory notes that cannot in the end be exchanged for anything of value. Then again, if one was only to say airily that Lynch's films are exquisite meditations on the nature of the medium itself, or some such plausible boilerplate, then this still leaves unaccounted for the very real grip he has on our imaginations. It is not necessarily the hardest thing in the world to fuse art-house sensibility with American kitsch or cinematic shorthand (this has been the dream of every intellectual director since Godard, on both sides of the Atlantic); but to do so in the medium of an extended television series – as Lynch did with Twin Peaks – takes a remarkable dedication and sincerity of vision. You simply can't do that kind of thing if you're a fake or a pseud. And Lynch himself shows no signs of slackening, or of getting flabby (although I will leave it to the fans to argue among themselves whether Fire Walk With Me was a disaster or not). A man who claims he can feel electrons from light bulbs hitting him (it's his phrase; he might be thinking of photons) and yet is otherwise demonstrably sane and well adjusted, or who has an ear for Beckettian, or perhaps more Pinteresque, comedy in his scripts – let's not forget that Eraserhead is, at times, hilarious – while simultaneously showing us things that words cannot explain, is not going to dry up in a hurry. He shows us the strangest damn things.
Art Fag
I downloaded a bunch of those but have yet to watch any.
Blue Velvet is probably my favorite Lynch movie. Even though I first saw it in high school (an excellent time as my mind was more impressionable and susceptible to aesthetic moods), my friends and I still quote it often (e.g. "A ride? That's a great idea!"; "Heineken? FUCK THAT SHIT! Pabst! Blue Ribbon!!"; "You know what a love letter is? It's a bullet from a gun, fucker!"). It was also the first film where Lynch started to use the theme of two different worlds in one place, something he'd perfect with Twin Peaks , Inland Empire and Mulholland Drive .

While Eraserhead is great, it's surrealism and despair through and through. What I find superior about his later works with their two worlds/one place theme is how the viewer is generally uncertain about the meaning. In Twin Peaks (TV show) this eventually is explained as a supernatural occurance (The White Lodge) while in Mulholland Drive it's the product of a diseased mind. Blue Velvet still remains my favorite for the way it reminds me of certain feelings of uneasiness I sometimes get in some towns in Massachusetts and Rhode Island. The feeling that something sinster is right under the surface but you can't explain why or how.

This is going to seem heretical to Lynch fans and film buffs, but I think Lynch was at his best with Wild at Heart, Dune, and Lost Highway.

PopFop already did well in describing Lynch's ability to capture dread - but he wasn't just a surrealist who was enamored with capturing visceral moods of dread and psychologically remote confusion and terror. He also was great at conveying romantic feeling.

Dune is a fable about a Romantic who eschews the privilege of exalted birth in order to lead a tribe of pious wildmen on a desert world as a warrior messiah against a brutally senseless slave empire. Wild at Heart captures the intensity of erotic love as experienced by youth, and its necessarily absurd and tragic consequences.

Lost Highway is a rehashing of Occurrence At Owl Creek Bridge , with an added love story - every man dreams in Lynch's estimation at the moment of his mortal demise of being young, vigorous, savage, and totally in love. Congruous with that vision, Lynch (being a good, goy director who appreciates girls in lieu of catamites) always manages to make his leading ladies beautiful - you see them through his eyes:

YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/embed/GJuya9mJcDA

That is the best treatment of visceral, erotic passion I've ever seen in film.