January 20th marks the 71st birthday of American film director, David Lynch. At 71 years old, the master of innovative film-making shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. In fact, given his most recent theatrical output, 2006’s Inland Empire, one could say that David Lynch is only growing bolder and more confident as he gets older. In celebration of his unique and highly influential work in the realm of cinema, as well as his return to television for the reboot of Twin Peaks in May of 2017, this essay takes a look back at some of the director’s best work and discusses what it is that makes his films so memorable and effective.
Growing up, he began his life-long affair with the arts as a painter, often depicting dark and/or surreal images that would serve to inform his later work in short and full length films. He later attended art school in Philadelphia, and soon began working on his first feature length film, Eraserhead. Taking cues from legendary directors of the past, such as Federico Fellini, Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick, Lynch set out to create his own unique vision of the human experience. Initially finding a receptive audience with the midnight cult movie crowd following the release of Eraserhead, Lynch went on to refine and perfect his artistic vision with breakout films such as Blue Velvet (1986) and Mulholland Drive (2001), and also co-created the hit television show, Twin Peaks (1990-1991) with Mark Frost. His work, often characterized by non-linear narratives, with dark and frequently violent portrayals of American life, has come to be known by the term “Lynchian.”
Frequently operating within a framework that relies heavily on the logic and power of dreams, Lynch utilizes every tool at his disposal in order to construct scenes that speak directly to an audience’s most basic and primal emotions, particularly fear and love. He is notorious for his meticulous attention to sound design, and his first film beautifully demonstrates just how well this translates on screen. Eraserhead, Lynch’s 1977 debut film, makes extensive use of sound, employing a harsh and unnerving soundscape of industrial machinery to create an atmosphere full of dread and paranoia. The absence of a musical score (with the exception of “In Heaven (Everything is Fine)” sung by the lady in the radiator) adds to the distinct sense of anxiety and desolation that permeates the film. The viewer is left to wander this bleak environment along-side the main character, Henry Spencer, with nothing to accompany the journey except the perpetual grinding of unseen machinery. Adding to the mystique of this first film, Lynch (who famously refuses to comment on the meaning behind most of his work) has stated that this is his most spiritual film, and that the inspiration for it was his brief stint spent living in Philadelphia.
Lynch’s fascination with music and sound, along with his fondness for dreams and the subconscious often come together to convey striking portrayals of the human condition and psyche. His 2001 film, Mulholland Drive, explores themes of love, obsession and uncertainty in contemporary Los Angeles, as filtered through the subconscious. Seemingly drifting in and out of a dark dream, Lynch paints a heart-breaking portrait of a struggling actress who may or may not be constructing her own reality as a means of coping. What makes his films so interesting to watch is his uncanny ability to manipulate a viewer’s emotions at will, even if the events on screen are not wholly understood within the context of a non-linear plot. One particular moment that comes to mind is the now famous scene at Club Silencio in Mulholland Drive. The two main characters find themselves in a fictional L.A. nightclub, where singer Rebekah Del Rio lip-synchs to a Spanish version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying,” fainting mid-way through as the song continues, revealing that the entire performance was in fact pre-recorded. As this happens, the music continues to play as the singer is dragged off stage and the camera cuts to the two women crying uncontrollably in their seats. This scene (as with the majority of Lynch’s work) is up for interpretation. But the point here is that without any context or understanding, this sequence can stand on its own. The visuals, coupled with the music and visceral reactions from the characters draw the viewer further into this world where meaning exists, but only on the fringes. In Lynch’s capable hands, viewers are swept up in an overwhelming sense of sadness, profoundly aware that something vital may have been lost.
Lynch thrives in these gray areas, often depicting his characters in the midst of psychological and social upheaval which leaves them lost in confusion and isolation. Films such as Lost Highway (1997), Inland Empire (2006) and Blue Velvet (1986) all portray complex characters that exist in a perpetual state of uncertainty. It’s as if his characters can each account for the once-missing pieces of their fractured lives, but have no concept of what the finished product should look like. Lynch leaves them to find their own way, and in doing so becomes a master of walking the line between enlightenment and ignorance.
While there may very well be those who are critical of his work, dismissing it as weird, oppressive or impossible to follow (and it very well can be), it would be difficult to deny the subtle genius of his work. He is considered to be one of the most ground-breaking and innovative directors in American film. He continues to be very active today in music and film, while also finding the time to promote his very own brand of coffee, and spread the word about the many benefits of Transcendental Meditation. Best wishes and happy birthday to one of the most celebrated directors of our time.