Anxiety, Surrealism & the Cinema of David Lynch
Many writers and critics have attempted to encapsulate David Lynch’s artistic characteristics in a concise way, but the simplest and most illuminating observation I have ever heard about his work came from a 2001 interview with actor Al Strobel – (the one-armed man who played Phillip Gerard/MIKE in Twin Peaks). He said that in Lynch’s films we see a “juxtaposition of horror and beauty”. This juxtaposition creates a nightmarish anxiety that is unique to the cinema of David Lynch, who draws from many film heritages connected to suspense and surrealism, and yet redefines them with his own terms.
I freely admit to being a late bloomer when it came to admiring David Lynch as a filmmaker. I respected the fact that he had been able to create a unique and recognizable cinematic world, (much as men like Tim Burton, David Cronenberg and Alan Rudolph had), but I simply did not enjoy his films. I suspected him of seeking notoriety by being merely weird or shocking for the sake of being weird and shocking, nothing more. While I did like the television show he co-created, Twin Peaks, I detested the films Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart. I thought they were weak, transparent and of no substance or interest, except to those content with forced quirkiness standing in the place of filmmaking.
It was not until 1999, almost alone in a movie theater on a fall afternoon of that year, that I was converted, so to speak. There was a film released at that time which to me was the key that unlocked the mystery of David Lynch as a filmmaker. It was only after seeing his film The Straight Story that I began to understand what Lynch was interested in and had been trying to do in his films all this time.
Lynch directing The Straight Story was an unprecedented, sublime, and almost heroic act of revolution and protest. Some of his most ardent admirers abandoned him over this film, claiming he must have gone soft or sold out, etc. They had worshipped him because they saw his work as consciously contemptuous of any traditional values, (either in the film world or in society in general). They saw him as an anarchist, intent on accentuating only the darkest aspects of human experience. I feel that these admirers appreciated Lynch’s self-invented weirdness, (roughly between 1986 and 1992), as kind of an alternative fad, but they did not necessarily understand or appreciate his cinematic concerns. With The Straight Story, Lynch definitively separated himself from those fans who expected him to only make Blue Velvets for the rest of his life.
This was a thoroughly surreal act of rebellion on his part because, just as he had once won a following by affronting bourgeois tastes, now he offended and shunned the very people who loved him for offending and shunning the bourgeoisie. It was much like Salvador Dali being put on trial and ostracized by the Surrealists in the 1930’s for being “too surreal.” Like Dali, Lynch understood that an artist must be loyal only to his art and not to any bands of admirers, whether they are composed of millions or just a handful. The Straight Story was like a provisional test designed to separate out of all the would-be Lynch loyalists those actually concerned with his art from those who would restrict him to a single style or genre in return for their praise. Director Sam Peckinpah, who also drew heated controversy over his “beautiful” treatment of violence, when he deliberately followed his most notorious films with gentle, PG-rated ones; as when The Ballad of Cable Hogue (1970) followed The Wild Bunch (1969) and when Junior Bonner (1972) followed Straw Dogs (1971). In both cases, Peckinpah sought to demonstrate that his style and themes would always remain consistent, even if the extremity of the material fluctuated.
Everything about The Straight Story’s protest is ripe with Lynch’s surreal, Dada-like radicalism; the chief irony, of course, being that the man who had created some of the most disturbing scenes on the screen in the past 20 years had now made a film with nothing in it that most people associated with his name. Not only was the film – with its clichéd poster and corny-clever title – not rated R, it was conspicuously rated G! Not only was it not an independent feature, but it was produced for, of all companies, the Disney corporation! The greatest accomplishment, however, lies in the fact that the film is probably the most complete and satisfying, both dramatically and cinematically, of all of Lynch’s films to that point. Lynch may have tested his audience with the film, but the harsher test was upon himself. If he was a true filmmaker, could he expect to walk into any circumstance and produce interesting cinema? He was, and he did. He abandoned his comfort zone and cut the apron strings that tied him to the reassuring acclaim of the world of aggressive, independent filmmaking and simply made what he had always been trying to make; a David Lynch film.
The Straight Story was the key to his work as a director because it was stripped of all the surface affectations that had covered Lynch’s previous films, leaving only the strength of his directing to link it to his other work. In other words, the consistencies from film to film that audiences look for in the work of auteurs were considerably reduced. The film allowed Lynch’s directorial attributes to be distilled and examined on their own, without the volume and intensity of plot and atmosphere distracting the viewer, as had been the case so often with his other films. Alfred Hitchcock had done something similar when he made Psycho (1960). The director had wanted to distance himself from the lustrous, big-budgeted crowd-pleasers he had become associated with and prove what he could do with just his talent. Psycho, by relinquishing the comforts of immediately preceding Hitchcock films, actually confirmed the unity of style and content that is found in all of the director’s films. The Straight Story served exactly the same purifying, rejuvenating purpose for David Lynch, whom I now recognize in his maturity as one of the two or three most important American directors working today.
Being well aware that a great deal has been written about Lynch and his films, from existentialist, feminist, sociological, psychological, political, sexual, multi-media, post-modern and post-structuralist points of view, (deep breath), I will not venture into any of those areas. Instead, I will spend a few pages exploring what I feel has rarely, if ever, been touched on so far; that is, David Lynch as a filmmaker - specifically a surrealist filmmaker - and a devoted practitioner of subjective pure cinema.
When discussing a great director, I prefer to point out consistencies that can be found in any number of his films, but a short preliminary overview of Lynch’s work in film chronologically is also worthwhile. Lynch has made time to explore a variety of interests outside of film as well, such as painting, photography, and songwriting (i.e. his collaboration with singer Julee Cruise). He is first and foremost a filmmaker, however.
He made a number of short films in the late 60s’ and 70’s, and his first feature, Eraserhead (1977), which took him over four years to complete, became a cult success almost immediately and pointed Lynch to a potentially successful career as a mainstream director of offbeat stories. His following films, The Elephant Man (1980) and Dune (1984), suggest paths he could easily have chosen to follow in his work for Hollywood. While many Lynch fans consider these two films interruptions in the director’s true career, they are not without merit individually, and they are not without interest in increasing one’s understanding of Lynch’s cinematic concerns.
Dune is a curiosity, to say the least; it being a mega-budgeted science-fiction epic directed by an individualistic art-film director. It is unfair to call it a “mess,” however, as many critics did when it was first released. It is certainly confusing, especially to those unfamiliar with Frank Herbert’s novel, but it also showcases fantastic set and costume design, and wonderfully eccentric performances in the supporting roles – a Lynch trademark. A controversy brewed in the years after its original run because a re-edited, longer print was aired on television that Lynch did not approve of. Seeing it, it is easy to see why. While the extended scenes are interesting and informative, the film as a whole is so dark and sloppily edited that it becomes a chore even to pay attention to it. Lynch removed his name from this print, using the standard Hollywood director’s pseudonym Alan Smithee. The fake name Judas Booth (suggesting betrayal and assassination) took credit for the screenplay.
Most agree that Lynch found his voice with the art-house hit that he wrote and directed himself, Blue Velvet (1986). It marked the beginning of his exclusive collaboration with composer Angelo Badalamenti, and it featured almost all of the elements that have characterized his work since. It also helped resuscitate the career of Dennis Hopper, making him the film world’s preeminent psycho. Blue Velvet, its sensationalism aside, is an important work for Lynch because it seems to be the first film that Lynch was completely satisfied with, and which he had not had to compromise on in any way; (unlike Dune, which had been recut by the producers without his participation). He was now the auteur of his films and could initiate projects he wanted to do, whereas with The Elephant Man and Dune, he had merely been the hired director.
Co-creating the TV series Twin Peaks (1989-1991) with Mark Frost, Lynch achieved his greatest exposure and popularity thus far. This, combined with the success of Lynch’s feature Wild at Heart (1990), which won the Palm D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival, elevated Lynch to being one of the most respected directors in the world. Twin Peaks became a national fad in America for about a year, but by the time the last season ended on an unresolved cliffhanger, hardly anyone cared. Lynch’s attempt to breathe new life into the story on the big screen with Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992) proved that interest in the phenomenon had all but completely vanished save from the most die-hard fans. Perhaps alarmed by the surprise failure of his Twin Peaks film, Lynch waited five years before bringing another project to the screen.
Regarding Twin Peaks, specifically, I tend to regard the entire project, the pilot movie, the series itself, and the feature film prequel, as all one big David Lynch film - (this, even though many other people directed individual episodes of the show, and Mark Frost absolutely deservese equal credit with Lynch for its success) - and therefore I will not differentiate between the TV show and the film unless necessary. Lynch directed the pilot, the finale, the feature, and many key episodes, including the important episode 14, in which the murderer of Laura Palmer is revealed, and which is just as fine as any theatrical film Lynch has made.
Despite my conversion to the appreciation of David Lynch, I still contend that Wild at Heart, probably his most unanimously acclaimed film (at least at the time of its release), actually remains his weakest, (yes, even weaker than Dune). This could perhaps be due to the fact that, unlike such truly Lynchian works as Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, and Lost Highway, the film was adapted another source, but I also suspect that its lack of focus and condescending stance came from Lynch having his attention divided between it and the third season of Twin Peaks, which also (as every T.P. fan knows) was by far the least of the show’s two-and-a-half seasons. I also imagine that the overbearing profusion of sex, violence, and profanity in Wild at Heart is the result of Lynch compensating for having to abstain from such things during the previous year he spent working on the television show. Unlike his best work, which juxtaposes horror and beauty in a striking way, Wild at Heart is almost all ugliness and very little beauty.
The irony that Wild at Heart was the sleeper hit of Cannes in 1990 while Fire Walk with Me was booed at the same festival just two years later is appalling to me, and suggestive that the trendy weirdness of Lynch was more important to film journalists at that time than actual cinematic quality. In retrospect, over ten years later, Wild at Heart seems to have retained almost no interest among filmgoers, or even Lynch fans, while Fire Walk with Me continues to be the subject of much concern; (groups even forming to ensure that scenes cut from it will be released to the public, with or without Lynch’s approval).
Lynch’s last three films, (as of this writing), Lost Highway (1997), The Straight Story (1999) and Mulholland Drive (2001), achieved a level of control and maturity, as well as a disregard for expectations, that seem symptomatic of a confident director, one comfortable with his talents and interests, and content to set his films in the same hallucinatory modern world that he seems to love and fear so much. These things have given him ample right to claim the mantle left behind by Lang, Buñuel, Hitchcock and Antonioni as a master of the cinema of anxiety.
Although some directors are criticized for returning to familiar themes and images from film to film, this is actually a phenomenon that should be applauded. The critics who hold the former point of view mistakenly believe that directors prove their worth by making films that look nothing like each other; in other words films that seem to demonstrate versatility. While directors such as William Wyler or Martin Scorsese have been successful in making films in a variety of genres, this fact only makes it more difficult to pinpoint their individual style and sensibility.
For example, what significance is there in the fact that the man who made Raging Bull (1980) also made Kundun (1997) or The Age of Innocence (1993), or that the man who made Ben-Hur (1959) also made The Heiress (1949)? Are we to be impressed primarily at the diversity of their interests, however admirable? Or are we to surmise that they were at least partially apprehensive about becoming stereotyped as directors of a particular genre?
While it is often said that men like Hitchcock, Ford, Buñuel, Welles, etc. always made the same types of films, anyone who has seen more than a handful of any of their films knows that they are different from each other, progressions from each other, and are individual pieces in a giant puzzle that help us understand what the respective directors are concerned with as artists.
A word that perfectly describes the work of directors who can be considered auteurs is consistency. Two meanings of the word are intended here; both the consistency in the sense of recurring themes, images, situations, etc. and the consistency in terms of texture and density. To discuss consistency in the former sense, we can first look at the motifs of imagery and ideas that seem to appear again and again in Lynch’s films.
Fire. One of the most common of these is fire. Whether it comes in the form of a raging inferno or a single match, the flames always fill the entire screen and are loudly accompanied by Lynch’s trademark sound, since Eraserhead, of echoing nothingness, as in a sea shell, and which can also sound like static or an inferno. Sometimes they are non-menacing, like the burning house used for a fire drill in The Straight Story, but mostly, they are extremely dangerous. There are fires of various kinds in Dune, Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, Lost Highway, and Mulholland Drive, during the opening credits of Wild at Heart and even in titles; like the song (written by Lynch) “Up in Flames” in Wild at Heart and the Twin Peaks film, Fire Walk with Me. In the latter film, Laura describes to Donna what falling through space would feel like; you would go “faster and faster, and then you’d burst into fire.” In almost every case, the conflagrations either appear to, or threaten to, engulf the characters, the most disturbing image of which is surely the glimpse of Lula’s father in Wild at Heart running amuck in an immaculate living room after having been set ablaze by the villain.
Curtains. Many of his films incorporate the sight of drapes or curtains billowing gently. For Lynch, this image seems to signify not an entry-way, but a division between reality and illusion that cannot, or should not, be crossed. They also tend to represent performance or presentation in a general sense, in which characters are taught or lectured. Curtains figure conspicuously in Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, and Mulholland Drive, (in which the symbolism is overt), and less so in The Elephant Man and Lost Highway, (in which the meaning is not as sharp but the image is nonetheless present - if only for the sake of consistency).
Industry. Lynch is clearly fascinated by the sights and sounds of industry - meaning factories, mills, smokestacks, engines, medical paraphernalia, exhaust, pollution, etc., etc. For him, these things are not only an inescapable fact of the modern world, but by gradually destroying nature, have actually replaced it and become nature. This theme appeared throughout Lynch’s first film, Eraserhead, in the form of the radiator and steams pipes in the hero’s nightmarishly cramped apartment. The science fiction epic Dune gave him many opportunities to linger over images of machinery and industry, especially with the scenes on the evil Harkonnens’ planet, where everything is made of rusted metal and seems covered with oil and lit by buzzing fluorescent lights. The life-supporting apparatuses that people are connected to in Dune and Blue Velvet are presented as grotesque abuses of the body. Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks both take place in lumber towns, and the machines of the lumber mill in Twin Peaks are seen in close-up during the shows opening credits. Pete, in Lost Highway, works at a garage and he and his co-workers are always covered in grease and oil. In fact, it is the smell of burnt engine oil that is concurrent with the appearances of the killer Bob throughout Twin Peaks.
Roads & Signs. Streets, roads, and highways are a constant feature in Lynch’s films. They figure into the titles of certain films, like Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. They even become the principal settings for other films where road trips form the basis of their entire plots, as in Wild at Heart and The Straight Story. Street signs and signal lights also seem to carry an air of foreboding when Lynch cuts or pans to one of them. The “Lincoln St.” sign in Blue Velvet is a really a sign of warning to the characters, as is the “downhill incline” sign in The Straight Story, and the signs reading “Mulholland Dr.” and “Sunset Blvd.” in Mulholland Drive, a film which boasts a character named Camilla Rhodes (roads). The traffic light at the center of town in Twin Peaks, swaying in the wind, and reliably changing despite the absence of vehicles, is a recurring and mysterious image in the series.
Song. Music does not just occupy the backgrounds of Lynch’s films; it is also spotlighted for significant periods of time. Often, songs are performed while characters think, talk, or stare at the singers absently. When there are songs, we do not hear just snippets of them, but most of the time they play out in full. Lynch’s fruitful collaborations with singer Julee Cruise, (for whom he wrote the lyrics to many songs), and composer Angelo Badalamenti demonstrate his appreciation for music, and he gives ample screen time to songs and singers in many of his films. Lynch utilizes rich, memorable scores and his partnership with Badalamenti is similar to Hitchcock’s with Bernard Herrmann and Spielberg’s with John Williams. At the same time, probably no feature film director, other than Altman, devotes as much screen time to actual musical performances.
He seems to have a special affinity for torch songs, lounge lizards, and 50’s-style pop songs. A Julee Cruise-like chanteuse, a.k.a. the “Lady in the Radiator”, in Eraserhead sings ethereally that “In heaven, everything’s fine.” Dorothy Valens in Blue Velvet is a langurous nightclub singer, and the 50’s songs “Blue Velvet” by Bobby Vinton and “In Dreams” by Roy Orbison are each heard in the film several times. In Wild at Heart, not only does Sailor talk like Elvis Presley throughout the film, but he even sings two of his songs. The real-life singers Julee Cruise and Jimmy Scott perform in Twin Peaks. Also in Twin Peaks, James Hurley sings an entire 50’s-type love song to two girls who are in love with him, the unhinged Leland Palmer often erupts into showtunes, and Donna Hayward even lip syncs briefly to one of Cruise’s songs. The audition in Mulholland Drive consists of singing two bubblegum 50’s songs. Lip sync performances occur in Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive, both of which are interrupted abruptly. Real pop stars often turn up in non-musical roles too, (albeit this may be stretching the point a bit); such as Sting in Dune, Chris Isaak and David Bowie in Twin Peaks, Henry Rollins in Lost Highway and Billy Ray Cyrus in Mulholland Drive.
Blinking lights. Many scenes in Lynch’s films appear lit with an invariably flickering light, sometimes from a source seen in the film, and sometimes not. For example, the coroner in Twin Peaks apologizes to Agent Cooper about the blinking fluorescent lights in the morgue. A more severe strobe-like effect occurs many times in Twin Peaks – during Ronette’s flashback; in Harold Smith’s house after his suicide; in the Black Lodge in the finale; and in the nightclub in Fire Walk with Me. Strobe lights are also featured in the dance club scene in Wild at Heart and in the scene of Fred playing the saxophone at a club in Lost Highway.
Mysteries. There is almost always a mystery to be solved, but Lynch gives special attention to individuals who not only delve into the mystery but who also savor every minute of doing so. His characters have an almost obsessive desire to solve mysteries, even ones that do not concern them at all. In Blue Velvet, Jeffrey and Sandy embark on a mission to solve the mystery surrounding a severed ear and the singer Dorothy Valens. Jeffrey is so elated at the prospect that Sandy says to him, “I don’t know if you’re a detective or a pervert.” In Twin Peaks, Agent Cooper is similarly stimulated by a mystery. Whether about to open Laura Palmer’s diary or a copy of the magazine “Flesh World”, Cooper seems more exited at the prospect of uncovering a secret, any secret, than by finding anything lewd. Also in Twin Peaks, the high school girls Donna Hayward and Audrey Horne, together and separately, set out to discover what happened to Laura, much as the friends Betty and Rita in Mulholland Drive join forces to uncover the mystery surrounding Rita’s real identity.
Voyeurism. Going hand in hand with the fetishism surrounding mysteries, voyeurism is also a frequent activity in Lynch’s films. The most obvious case of this in any of his films must be Jeffrey watching Dorothy Valens from inside her closet in Blue Velvet. Not only does he watch her undress and then be raped by Frank Booth, but it is from this same closet that he is able to hide from, and kill, Frank at the end of the film. The wholesome Sandy also admits to Jeffrey that she only knows as much as she knows because she eavesdropped on her detective father while he was discussing the case. The mysterious videotapes that arrive at Fred and Renee’s doorstep in Lost Highway are terrifying because they seem to have been filmed from inside the house while the couple was sleeping. Twin Peaks is full of voyeuristic moments, as when Audrey creeps around the Great Northern Hotel through secret passageways and peers through peepholes into various rooms of the building, including her father’s office. She also hides in a closet at Horne’s Department Store in order to learn more about what happened to Laura. There is a mysterious figure outside the window at the Martell home during the scene where Josie and Harry make love, and the person is never clearly identified, suggesting that it could literally be anyone.
Keys and jewelry. Jewelry often has special significance to Lynch’s characters, but more often it, as well as keys of various kinds, seems to represent gateways to other planes of existence. Laura Palmer’s broken heart necklace is the subject of nearly everyone’s interest in Twin Peaks. The movie director Adam Kesher in Mulholland Drive, intent on getting revenge on his cheating wife, knows exactly what will most hurt her as he pours pink paint into her beloved jewelry box. Rings also figure in Twin Peaks, as with Cooper’s ring that is taken by the giant and returned to him when Laura’s killer is identified, and the ring that belonged to Teresa Banks, which warns Laura and others of her impending death. Keys appear at crucial moments in various of Lynch’s films as well. There is the key that Jeffrey steals out of Dorothy Valens’ apartment to allow himself back in in Blue Velvet, and the key to the safe deposit box that is taped inside Laura Palmer’s diary in Twin Peaks. There is also the strange blue key that appears in Mulholland Drive to notify “Diane” that “Camilla” has been killed, and which also appears in fantasy form as a more exotic-looking key that unlocks a mysterious blue box.
Space. The significance is unknown to me, but several of Lynch’s films begin with shots of the starry night sky or outer space, among them The Elephant Man, Dune, and The Straight Story.
Sound distortion. An interesting, and often disturbing, effect that Lynch often uses is slowing down the action of a shot and also slowing down, amplifying, and distorting the sound to create an unearthly sensation. This seems to be something that he has developed himself, and it is quite different from the uses of slow-motion in other films, in which such shots are often accompanied by music or dialogue, (and not the actual sound of the shot slowed down with the shot). This effect is used in Blue Velvet, in which Jeffrey dreams of the evil Frank and hears his screaming voice as a tremendous bellow, and in the traumatic murder of Maddy in Twin Peaks, in which the killer Bob’s laughter and Maddy’s screams become a nightmarish, prolonged roar. Lynch himself is credited as the sound designer on almost all of his films and his concern with the effects of sound is clear in many of his sequences. A famous distortion of sound occurs several times in Twin Peaks during the sequences taking place in the limbo Black Lodge. Here, the characters speak in a stilted, forced manner that was actually accomplished by having the actors speak their lines backwards and then playing the film backwards so that the dialogue is now forward, but bizarrely warped. Voice distortions of different kinds are also used in Dune and Wild at Heart.
Concerned elders. Parents and parental figures pop up in Lynch’s stories in both good and bad ways, but usually the latter. The mothers of Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks and of Lula in Wild at Heart are certainly obsessive and overbearing in their protectiveness of their daughters, (though with good reason). Lula’s mother and Mary’s mother in Eraserhead are both psychotically paranoid about their daughters’ sexual activity, and yet nearly seduce their daughters’ boyfriends. The fathers of Donna Hayward and of Bobby Briggs in Twin Peaks, however, are remarkably, almost impossibly, patient and understanding. Middle-aged and elderly women often serve as prophetic voices of warning for the main characters, who, in Lynch’s films, are almost always in their teens and 20’s. Jeffrey’s Aunt Barbara in Blue Velvet warns him not to walk as far the dreaded “Lincoln Street.” Margaret, the “log lady,” in Twin Peaks and the neighbor in Mulholland Drive are both solitary eccentric women who are literally psychic in their premonitions of trouble brewing. The paradox of concerned nurturer and obsessed oppressor is dealt with most explicitly in the character of Leland Palmer in Twin Peaks. As Leland, he loves his daughter Laura immensely, but when possessed by “Bob”, he rages in jealousy of her sexuality and frequently rapes, terrorizes, and finally, of course, murders her.
Violence. I would not say that violence in general is any more a characteristic feature in Lynch’s films than in say, Peckinpah’s, Scorsese’s, Ferrara’s, or Tarantino’s, but the point here is the eccentricity of the violence and especially the recurring forms it takes. Although the violence in Wild at Heart, (in which gunshots are miraculously capable of severing heads and hands from their owners), seems more maliciously cruel and excessive than anything in the films of Scorsese or Tarantino, for the most part Lynch appears more interested in wounds themselves than in the violence that produces them. The most obvious cases are the severed ear in Blue Velvet, and perhaps even the use of the “heart plugs” in Dune, (a detail interestingly not found in Frank Herbert’s original novel). Mostly, however, there are the repeated head wounds in Lynch’s films that are impossible to ignore, which include Duncan Idaho in Dune, Frank in Blue Velvet, and Mr. Eddy in Lost Highway all being shot in head; Maddy, Leland, Ben Horne, and Agent Cooper in Twin Peaks all being rammed, or ramming themselves, into objects that give them gashes on their foreheads, and Diane shooting herself in the head at the end of Mulholland Drive, etc. As if to belabor the point, the head wounds received by the car crash survivor in Wild at Heart, by Andy in Lost Highway and the drug dealer in Fire Walk with Me all are lingered over in loving close-up by Lynch.
Stages. Stages are often used by Lynch to stress the element of performance in life and the barrier that exists, or should exist, between reality and artifice. Therefore, performances or addresses of various kinds occur from stages in Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, and Mulholland Drive. Furthermore, a zig-zagging floor pattern – seen in both Eraserhead and Twin Peaks – seems to indicate a sealed-off area for a designated action.
Portals. Thresholds between two planes or worlds often appear in Lynch’s films. Sometimes the gateway is unmistakable, as in Twin Peaks, but often it is merely implied. For example, the shift from one plane to another occurs in the prison cell in Lost Highway and with the strange blue box in Mulholland Drive. The puddle of oil in a clearing in the woods, as well as the curtain-like density of the trees, marks the entryway to another dimension in Twin Peaks, as does Henry’s radiator in Eraserhead. Physical phenomena also seem to accompany the passage from one world to another in Lynch’s films, most obviously seen in the stench of burning oil in Twin Peaks, and the bizarre spasmic trembling that overtakes characters in both Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive.
Alternate identities. A common theme in his films, in fact possibly the most common, it is perhaps more appropriately discussed in a later section on the surrealism in Lynch’s work.
Actors. Finally, aside from certain themes and situations already discussed, one of the most visible components of Lynch’s films that link them to each other are a collection of actors who seem to appear in film after film of his. And even when they have only appeared in two of his films, like Dean Stockwell or Sherilyn Fenn, for example, it is still difficult not to think of them as Lynchian actors. Jack Nance is a supporting actor who appeared in almost all of Lynch’s film until his death in the late 90’s. He had the title role in Eraserhead, and played smaller parts in Dune, Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, Wild at Heart and Lost Highway. Kyle MacLachlan made his debut in Lynch’s Dune and thereafter associated himself closely with the director by playing the lead roles of Jeffrey Beaumont in Blue Velvet and Agent Dale Cooper in Twin Peaks. Others who have appeared in two or more of Lynch’s films include Freddie Jones, Brad Dourif, Catherine Coulson, Dean Stockwell, Laura Dern, Jurgen Prochnow, Harry Dean Stanton, Sherilyn Fenn, Grace Zabriskie, David Patrick Kelley, Isabella Rossellini, Michael J. Anderson, Alicia Witt, Francis Bay, Sheryl Lee, Everett McGill and possibly others.
All of these consistencies may only be a fraction of the elements that appear in most or all of David Lynch’s film, but this list has at least shed light on many of the interests that Lynch has as a director and artist. Knowing these concerns are one of the principal ways one can quickly appreciate what a director is attempting to achieve from film to film.
The consistency of the second kind can be looked at in terms of the use of textual and inter-textual references - (although I dislike those French post-structuralist terms). Let it suffice to say that Lynch’s use of self-referential and cross-referential gestures is quite different from similar devices used by other directors. Unlike them, he does not employ such things as a type of inside joke, nor as pointers to fully comprehending his scenes. To Lynch, references to movies and television are a natural method of expressing his interests, whether or not anyone else gets them all. Some are so obscure, in fact, that one can only assume that there are many others that go by completely unnoticed. The references usually tell us nothing about what the meaning of a scene or sequence in a film is, but once in while they provide an additional amount of insight by showing us what Lynch might have been thinking about when preparing a certain scene.
The many references to films by Alfred Hitchcock are almost too numerous to catalog: Laura Palmer’s identical cousin is named Madeleine Ferguson, which is a combination of the heroine’s first name and the hero’s last name in Vertigo. Like Vertigo’s heroine, the Madeleine of Twin Peaks is also asked to change her hair color in order to impersonate a dead woman whom she looks exactly like. Rita/Camilla’s apparent amnesia in Mulholland Drive also recalls Madeleine’s lapses of cognizance in Vertigo. The exposure of death and murder in an American small town in both Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks is clearly taken from Hitchcock films like Shadow of a Doubt (1943) and The Trouble with Harry (1955). In Twin Peaks, both Maddy and Laura’s bodies are wrapped in plastic after their murders, just as Marion Crane’s in Psycho (1960) is wrapped in a clear shower curtain. The voyeuristic hero of Blue Velvet is named Jeffrey, as is the hero of Hitchcock’s meditation on voyeurism, Rear Window (1954). One of the most “Hitchcockian” touches in any Lynch movie is the moment in Lost Highway when a man held in a prison cell not only vanishes into thin air, but is inexplicably replaced by a completely different person. Even though such a thing never actually occurs in any Hitchcock film, it is precisely the type of thing that he always discussed with interviewers about wishing he could do.
In Blue Velvet, the use of Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell as old friends recalls their many roles as troubled teens in 50’s delinquency films, and the fact that they were friends in real life since the 50’s. David Lynch himself played Agent Cooper’s superior, Gordon Cole, in Twin Peaks, taking the name from a minor character in the film Sunset Boulevard (1950). Many references in Wild at Heart are made to The Wizard of Oz (1939). Otto Preminger’s Laura (1944), a mystery concerning the death of the titular character, was an obvious inspiration for Lynch and Mark Frost while developing Twin Peaks, and not just with the use of the name Laura for a murdered girl. Laura’s villain is named Waldo Lydecker, and in Twin Peaks, the myna bird with a clue is named Waldo and his veterinarian is named Dr. Lydecker.
In Twin Peaks, the one-armed man is named Philip Gerard, a double reference to the television show ”The Fugitive” in which a lawman named Philip Gerard is chasing the “fugitive”, who in turn is chasing a “one-armed man”. Twin Peaks also refers to another cult-TV show by featuring both Peggy Lipton and Clarence Williams III in the cast, both of whom were known from the series “The Mod Squad” in the late 60’s. Similarly, the body washed up on the beach near a rock outcropping and Wyndom Earle’s use of people as chess pieces seem taken from still another cult series; “The Prisoner”.
Russ Tamblyn and Richard Beymer, both best known from West Side Story (1961), are reunited in Twin Peaks. The suspect in the show is repeatedly and dramatically labeled “the third man”, referring to Carol Reed’s classic 1949 film. The bordello in Twin Peaks is called “One Eyed Jacks,” the name of Marlon Brando’s 1961 western; and Catherine Martell’s insurance agent is named Neff, the name of the Fred MacMurray character in Double Indemnity (1944). The image of a dog running off with a severed human hand in Wild at Heart is also seen in Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961). “Rita” in Mulholland Drive chooses her name only after seeing a poster of 40’s movie star Rita Hayworth in the home she hides in. In the same film, Adam the movie director, resembles the French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard because of his tousled black hair and omnipresent sunglasses, and the final word of the film, “silencio,” is also the last word heard in Godard’s great film Contempt (1963). The half-nude, overweight prostitutes in Wild at Heart absolutely recall Fellini. Finally, one of the most enjoyable references in Lynch’s films involves the casting of veteran actor Hank Worden as the old bellhop in the Great Northern Hotel in Twin Peaks. Worden is not only best remembered from John Ford’s classic western The Searchers (1956), but he even repeats, more than once, his most famous line from that film, “Thank you kindly.”
David Lynch is what I consider a cinematic director because his style of direction is able to be appreciated in its own right, whereas most directors - good and bad - attempt to keep their directing styles hidden for the sake of the film’s story. This is a touchy area because the cinematic director must always be careful not to let his films become a situation where style has completely overtaken substance, and yet also acknowledge the fact that in film, style does maintain preeminence over content. They must develop their personal style in order to satisfy their artistic impulses, but also never allow it to become an expected cliché as it has to certain degrees in the films of, for example, Oliver Stone or Martin Scorsese. I would say only a handful of directors today are able to manage this balance; among them Robert Altman and Majid Majidi.
The cinematic quality of Lynch’s directing can be attributed in part to two directors who are his most obvious influences, two men who achieved a perfect harmony in their films between style and content; Luis Buñuel and Alfred Hitchcock. (I say this not having researched Lynch’s personal story, or what he or others have had to say about his influences; I have drawn this conclusion from nothing more that seeing his films.) In a superficial sense the influences are obvious simply because Lynch’s films have many surreal elements (Buñuel) and also many mysterious and menacing elements (Hitchcock). But there is much more to it than that, because if that was the extent of the influence, we would have nothing more to observe about Lynch except for the occasional vignettes, images, or homages that seem to be referring to directors he admires. Granted, the focus on Hitchcock and Buñuel may be a little simplistic, as Lynch is assuredly influenced by many other thrillers besides Hitchcock’s – (especially Lang) – and other surrealists besides Buñuel – such as Cocteau, Man Ray, etc., but the debts owed to these two is so obvious that it cannot be ignored.
To discuss the Buñuelian Lynch first, there are many instances in Lynch’s films in which shots and editing are prepared in such a way as to recall Buñuel’s style. To my knowledge, Lynch is the only director who seems to have seen and acknowledged an actual directing style in Buñuel instead of just noting his surreal images and situations. To cite several examples: In Twin Peaks, the conspicuous cut-away shots to Audrey’s shoes is exactly like the abrupt cut to Severine’s shoes in Belle de Jour; (the shoes of beautiful women, of course, being one of the supreme symbols in surrealism of irrational male fetishism). Another image that is straight from Buñuel is the shot of the deer in the road in The Straight Story, which vividly recalls the shot of the dead goat found on a hill in Buñuel’s Land Without Bread (1933). It is shown in a way that contrasts it with the elements of human industry surrounding it (the pavement, the car, etc), just as Buñuel did when he pitted natural and manufactured things against each other in many of his films. Lynch does this again with the moose head trophy sitting squarely on the bank’s conference room table in Twin Peaks. The effect of such framing in both Buñuel and Lynch is comical in a way that nevertheless adds to the feeling of unexpected disruptions and anxiety that mount throughout their films.
The Hitchcockian Lynch is unmistakable due to one directorial technique Lynch always uses that Hitchcock was the undisputed master of, the point-of-view shot, in particular the moving point-of-view shot. Whereas Brian De Palma could be said to imitate Hitchcock out of a desire to pay homage, Lynch clearly seems to have incorporated into himself, almost subconsciously, many elements of Hitchcock’s style. Therefore, even though De Palma’s Hitchcock impersonation may be more direct, it is also happily superficial, and because of that, almost hollow, while Lynch’s seems to be more grounded, mature, and personal.
Hitchcock’s moving point-of-view shot is used by Lynch in the walks down the street near the beginnings of Blue Velvet and Fire Walk with Me, and during the approach to Diane’s apartment in Mulholland Drive, among many other instances. The point-of-view shot is also used masterfully in The Straight Story when the panicking Alvin careens down a hill in his tiny lawn-mower. The looming, precise tracking shot, (not necessarily being a character’s point-of-view), is also a feature that Lynch seems to have taken from Hitchcock, as seen in the few moments in the Palmer home before Maddy’s murder in Twin Peaks, the slow zoom towards Alvin’s home at the very beginning of The Straight Story, and the low advance to the apartment complex where “Rita” hides in Mulholland Drive.
Lynch’s self-attachment to the heritages of Buñuel and Hitchcock notwithstanding, he has also developed a strong and sound directing style all his own throughout his nine feature films and the several episodes of Twin Peaks that he directed. Though the atmosphere and general milieu of his films is crucial, Lynch also creates the feeling of unease for many scenes primarily through his camerawork. Many times, the sense of dread in even the simplest of situations becomes almost oppressive. Lynch often achieves this by cutting to a close shot of something that at first does not seem to warrant our attention, such as the ceiling fan in Twin Peaks, or various phones and intercoms in Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. This type of oppressive feeling is sensed in such moments as the forward movement through the grass at the beginning of Blue Velvet, the shots of the record player spinning in the silent Palmer home in episode 14 of Twin Peaks, and even Fred moving about in his own darkened house in Lost Highway. This type of thing is difficult to pinpoint, but it is something that Lynch has cultivated on his own; a method of creating anxiety that Buñuel or Hitchcock did not teach him.
Something else that differentiates Lynch from his prime directorial influences is his way of manipulating the frame in many of his scenes. Whereas Hitchcock and Buñuel kept their individual shots fairly straightforward, Lynch employs fluctuations of color and lighting within a shot, as well as multiple dissolves going in and out of each other.
One example of the type of experimental inventiveness he has cultivated as a director occurs in the dance club scene in Fire Walk with Me. In order to preserve the sensation of deafening music and the near inability to hear another person’s voice in such a setting, Lynch opted against the traditional way of handling such a sequence in movies. A typical film would overcome this problem by reducing the volume of the soundtrack and amplifying the volume of the dialogue. What Lynch does, however, is keep the music as loud as it is in the first place, but provide subtitles of the characters’ dialogue instead of worrying about making the audience hear it perfectly. Here, the normally unrealistic director takes steps to make a scene actually much more realistic than most movies ever would in a similar circumstance. This confirms the assertion of the surrealist movement that its approach is superreal; describing a heightened reality, not necessarily an otherworldly one.
Lynch has created many beautiful images in his films, but not only in terms of content. Like the great director he is, he knows that his filmmaking must complement his purpose. Therefore, when he wants us to appreciate the simple beauty of a person, thing, or moment, he creates the proper mood by using slow-motion, soft, deep music, and more relaxed editing. His crane shots are awesomely majestic, as in the overhead shot in Lost Highway that gently moves itself into a normal medium-shot of two characters, and as throughout The Straight Story. Many images are nearly impossible to forget: Isabella Rossellini drenched in blue light while singing onstage in Blue Velvet; Laura Palmer walking towards her reflection in a window to the sound of Julee Cruise’s voice in Fire Walk with Me; the pop-art-like jitterbug pre-credit sequence to Mulholland Drive, the helicoptor shots over the miles of fields in The Straight Story; to name just a few.
Just as often, however, Lynch crashes these tranquil scenes with monstrous horror. This is not a dramatic device only, but symptomatic of Lynch’s acceptance of the phenomenon of the American horror film. While not thought of as horror movies per se, his films nevertheless generate more actual terror than run-of-the-mill slasher films like the Friday the 13th or Nightmare on Elm Street series. What Lynch takes from the horror film is not just shock and gore, but the shamelessly manipulative tools that cinema can use so easily to create fright. This is seen in his very first feature, Eraserhead, with the close-up of the thick, black blood oozing from the cooked chickens, and the gruesome death throes of Henry’s grotesque “baby”. Think of Fred wandering through his house with the lights off, not yet sure if he is the victim or the victimizer, in Lost Highway, (Lynch’s most horror-movie-like film to date); Pete, his face bloodied, walking down a hallway as blinding lights flicker in the same film; or the comatose Leo Johnson regaining consciousness and attacking his wife Shelley in Twin Peaks. These are the types of situations, (always filmed in dark, tight point-of-view shots), that are found in everything from the cheapest to the classiest horror films. In all these cases, as in straight horror, Lynch makes unsparing use of lighting, framing, cutting, and soundtrack to push the viewers’ buttons in whatever ways that he desires. These techniques, which would never be found in any of the art films of Lynch’s contemporaries, are unique to him in his status as a serious, artistic, A-level director and they also identify him as particularly American.
Aside from filmmaking techniques, there are also circumstances that are horrific in their own right, regardless of how they are presented; such as the appearances of Bob in Twin Peaks, Frank’s assault on Dorothy in Blue Velvet, and Diane’s suicide in Mulholland Drive. Lynch is the only “A-director” – or “legitimate” or “serious” director – who uses the tools of the horror genre without any apology whatsoever, and this may be what discomforts so many of his viewers. The comparison of such horror with his many strikingly beautiful sequences and images is also alarming to even the most prepared viewers. Complicating the matter somewhat are times when things seem to be beautiful and horrific at the same time. Such is the case in Twin Peaks in the many shots of the fir trees billowing strongly in the night breeze and when Laura appears before Cooper in the Black Lodge; (she looks calm and pretty, as usual, but then she opens her eyes, which are solidly black, and her mouth, also black, and she wails piercingly – causing the normally fearless Cooper to run in terror).
The Straight Story allows Lynch to employ some of his most marvelous and beautiful instances of artistic direction. The leisurely tracking shot towards Alvin’s home is a case in point. It begins as a distant long shot of the front of the house, but ends in a close-up of a window on the side of the house. The swirling camera of the film’s opening shots is also remarkable, temporarily obscuring what the vast columns of cornfields really are. Shortly after Alvin begins his journey, Lynch begins a shot with a low tracking angle moving along the highway. Slowly it retreats enough to reveal Alvin’s lawnmower creeping along. Then it tilts upward toward the cloudy sky, staying still for a moment, then coming back down to the same stretch of highway, revealing that the lawnmower, still plugging along, has only traveled a short distance in all that time. The film concludes with a simple and lovely use of montage after Alvin is reunited with his estranged brother Lyle. They exchange few words, but when Lyle looks out and sees his brother’s lawnmower, he realizes what Alvin must have been through in order to get there. Lynch cuts from him looking, then to the lawnmower, then back to Lyle who fights back tears gathering in his eyes. This is enough for Lyle, for Alvin, and for the film, and it ends promptly at this point, without a typical, dramatic conclusion that proves to Alvin and the audience that his trip was worthwhile.
In almost all of his work, especially in his most recent films, Lynch demonstrates a control and confidence that is characteristic of a true auteur. The surety of his camerawork recalls Hitchcock, Kubrick and Scorsese, and gives us the same feeling of assurance that we feel while watching the films of those men, the sensation that we are in the hands of a master director.
And now to David Lynch the surrealist. Despite the feeling of some that the term surreal is for the most part synonymous with bizarre or strange, surrealism as an art movement and a philosophy is specifically concerned with exploring those aspects of our existence that are difficult to control or explain. It is concerned with chance, desire, dreams, madness and other problems of perception and identity. Whether Lynch’s surrealism was stimulated by Luis Buñuel’s or Jean Cocteau’s, or if it merely co-exists with it, is unknown to me, but Lynch’s vision of the world is undoubtedly in harmony with surrealist ideas and values in general.
First of all, dreams… There are moments in Lynch’s films that are either characters’ literal dreams on one hand, or are merely dreamlike in their extremity. Two films, in fact – (Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive), may be dreams or fantasies in their entirety. In Eraserhead, Henry dreams so much that, by the end of the film, he can scarcely tell reality from his dreams any longer. Dreams figure significantly in The Elephant Man, in which John Merrick witnesses what he imagines to be his own conception as a rampant elephant seems to rape his mother, and in Dune, in which Paul Atreides envisions his own future as a revolutionary leader. In Blue Velvet, Jeffrey has a nightmare about his recent experiences in Dorothy Valens’ apartment, and in Twin Peaks, Agent Cooper dreams of Laura Palmer whispering to him the identity of her own murderer. Later, when he discovers Laura’s secret diary, he learns that she had had the same dream. Deep in her coma, Ronette Pulaski has terrifying recollections of the night she and Laura were attacked by “Bob,” and Mrs. Palmer also sees the killer’s face in vision. In Fire Walk with Me, when Cooper apologizes to the trailer park manager for waking him up, the man says, “it’s okay, I was having a bad dream anyway.”
One of the most purely and lucidly surreal representations of a dream occurs in Fire Walk with Me, on the evening Laura places a painting on her bedroom wall which had been given to her by the mysterious Mrs. Tremond. The picture is of a room and doorway and in her dream she enters the picture and passes through the door. Lynch’s depiction of the transference is remarkable because the actual set is made to appear in the exact dimensions and perspective as the original picture hanging on the wall.
Dreams are not only shown in Lynch’s films, but, as in Buñuel’s The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (1972), they are discussed with great relish and detail. In Twin Peaks, Laura Palmer records many of her dreams in her diary. Fred describes a dream he had to his wife Renee in Lost Highway in which he murders her. The man in the diner near the beginning of Mulholland Drive announces that he has come there to overcome his fear, because he dreamed of the same diner and of a monster hiding behind it. The favorite line of Bobby Briggs in Twin Peaks, when departing a beautiful woman, is, “I’ll see you in my dreams.” Even the demented Frank in Blue Velvet reveals his love for the world of dreams by playing Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” over and over again, perversely mouthing the words to Jeffrey, “In dreams, I walk with you. In dreams, I talk with you”…
Lynch has inherited from the original Surrealists the desire to constantly alternate perspectives in order to make us reevaluate the assumptions we jump to and why. This is typically done by making large things seem small and, more often, small things seem large, but it is also sometimes achieved by slowing action down until it barely resembles the real action it is portraying, (as is the case with Maddy’s murder in Twin Peaks – where wrenching violence becomes almost a graceful dance). To Lynch, the ability to see things or circumstances from a different perspective can help people deal with their problems in a more healthy and less selfish way. In his worldview, even the ugly and horrible can be beautiful if looked at closely enough. He also repeatedly encourages us, (as Robert Altman frequently does), to postpone judgment about things – in life as well as in the movies – until we have seen more than one point of view.
The depictions of madness in Lynch’s work are also numerous. In fact, they are difficult to single out because it seems at times that all of his characters are insane to varying degrees. Even in the “straight” The Straight Story, a character whom Alvin meets on the road warns him that “strange people are everywhere these days”. Taking just Blue Velvet as an example, one could say that Jeffrey is insane because of his insatiable desire to invade others’ privacy, Sandy is for being attracted to him, Dorothy is because of Frank’s cruelty towards her, and Frank is because of his violence and perversion. Lula’s mother in Wild at Heart is obviously unbalanced, for reasons unknown, and Ronette, Sarah Palmer, Leo Johnson and Benjamin Horne in Twin Peaks all suffer breakdowns of different kinds.
Twin Peaks’ Leland Palmer is one of Lynch’s most sensitive explorations of madness. Where other characters’ conditions in Lynch’s films are merely seen and not understood, Leland’s affliction is eventually explained by demonic possession. The inhabiting spirit “Bob” has been entering Leland regularly since he was a young boy, and forcing him to do terrible things. Leland’s behavior is seen as tragic and amusing simultaneously, as he often bursts into song and dance at the most inappropriate times in the weeks after his daughter Laura’s death. After murdering a suspect in that crime, Leland’s hair turns completely white overnight. His personal agony during his mood swings before Laura’s murder, his breakdown at her funeral, and during the moments before his own death after “Bob” vacates him permanently accurately reflect the awful loneliness, fear, and frustration that accompany actual mental illness. With the possible exception of John Cassavetes in his grueling A Woman Under the Influence (1974), very few filmmakers have tackled the real desperation and anguish of madness as sincerely as Lynch has with Leland Palmer.
Confusion over reality and illusion is not just an indication of possible mental breakdown in Lynch’s films, it is often one of the main thematic elements of entire stories. Films like Eraserhead and Blue Velvet could be looked at as being primarily composed of alternating nightmares and wish-fulfillment dreams. When Jeffrey wakes up in his tranquil backyard at the end of Blue Velvet, we are far from certain if he had just dreamed or remembered the previous story or if this is merely the reassuring postscript to the film we have just seen. Similarly, in Fire Walk with Me, during Laura’s dream, she twice appears to wake up only to find that she is still in the dream.
Fred, in Lost Highway, points out the need people have to cling to their own perception of reality when he says that he hates video cameras because he likes to remember things his “own way”, not necessarily as they really happened. Of course, the remark also conveys the stubbornness of the mentally disturbed to accept any interpretation of things other than their own. A beautifully surreal demonstration of how we often insist upon illusion over reality occurs in Mulholland Drive. At the midnight theater Betty and Rita go to, called the Silencio, where recorded music and singing are accompanied by role-playing performers, the announcer repeatedly instructs the audience that everything seen and heard is “all an illusion”, mimed, and not real. In spite of all this preparation, we are still alarmed when an actress lip-synching to Rebekah Del Rio’s “Llorando” suddenly faints while the song continues on the soundtrack. The crucial lesson is as much for the audience of the film as for the characters in it.
Sometimes, the confusion between the actual and the fantasized is not a symptom of breakdown in a character, but is merely an alteration of perspective, which can happen to any of us. One of the most playful tenets of Surrealism has to do with the new connotations objects can acquire when cast in a different light, or when they pop up at opportune times. Such is the case of Agent Cooper’s discussion about the importance of grapefruits being “freshly squeezed” just as he glimpses temptress Audrey Horne walking towards him. One of the best examples is in The Straight Story, when Alvin tries to eat some deer meat and statues of deer just behind him make him self-conscious. This type of added significance being given to lifeless objects is also seen in Buñuel’s many films with statues – (L’Age D’Dor; Tristana) – and Hitchcock’s many with paintings and stuffed animals – (The Man Who Knew Too Much; Vertigo; Psycho).
Going hand in hand with the barriers, or lack thereof, between fantasy and reality, there is the frequent motif in Lynch’s work of dual identities. These alternate identities may come about through deliberate imagining, disguise, or even nature, but they are nevertheless present in most of the director’s films. The titles of his first two features, Eraserhead and The Elephant Man refer to mocking nicknames that the main characters of the respective films are given. In Dune, Paul Atreides adopts both a Fremen name (Muad’dib) and a tribal name (Usul) after his father dies and he becomes the leader of the Fremen. In Blue Velvet, Jeffrey nicknames one of his suspects both “the third man” and the “well dressed man,” who eventually turns out to be Frank Booth in disguise.
Twin Peaks alone is full of such dualities. Laura Palmer leads a double life; one as a wholesome homecoming queen by day, and as a hard-partying, cocaine-snorting prostitute by night. After her death, many of the characters attempt to fill the various roles she played in her life, partly out of a desire to be her, or to be like her, but also to uncover clues regarding what happened to her. Her identical cousin Maddy, for example, impersonates her in order to lure Dr. Jacoby away from his office. The shy Donna Hayward takes over Laura’s route on the Meals-on-Wheels program, and also seems to be transformed into a Laura-like temptress by donning her late friend’s sunglasses. Audrey Horne takes a job at her father’s department store, where Laura once worked, and also follows in her footsteps by landing a job at the brothel One-Eyed Jacks. The one-armed man, Phillip Gerard, is also known as “Mike” when controlled by his inhabiting spirit, just as Leland Palmer is also ”Bob.” The “giant” of the spirit world, in Agent Cooper’s visions, manifests himself in the real world as the old bellhop at the Great Northern Hotel. Catherine Martell disguises herself as a Japanese businessman after her faked death. Finally, like Laura herself, Benjamin Horne, Josie Packard, and several other characters, also lead double lives in which they are always play-acting to some extent to whomever they are with.
The notion of obsessions, fetishes, and all kinds of inexplicable human impulses is an important part of surrealism because the philosophy finds value in the instinctual ideas, whims and drives that we are typically encouraged to control or deny. Obviously, sexual desires are the most common of this type of inclination, but it also applies to violence, social conduct, and irrational acts of all kinds, even harmless ones. This form of groundless action that surrealism is in such perpetual awe of is commemorated in a hilarious moment in Lynch’s (supposedly least surreal film) The Straight Story, when Alvin calmly and ceremoniously shoots his first lawnmower with a rifle after it breaks down on him. The frustrated assassin in Mulholland Drive does likewise to a troublesome vacuum cleaner. The depictions of uncontrolled impulses in the majority of Lynch’s films are not usually so innocent, however.
The most obscene fetishist of all is probably Frank in Blue Velvet. The ritual he needs in order to be satisfied is one of the most abhorrent since the “necktie" killer’s in Hitchcock’s Frenzy (1972). He blackmails Dorothy Valens into cooperating with him by abducting her husband and son. Not only does he command her to not look at him, but he also breathes an anesthetic gas of some kind and makes her wear a blue velvet robe while he rapes her. Later in the film, after taking Jeffrey captive, he covers his lips with lipstick and smears Jeffrey’s face with kisses. Demonstrating the dangerous addiction inherent in connecting such violence to sexuality, we see that Dorothy herself soon expects to be hit, and through her, Jeffrey develops a taste for sado-masochism too, which he recalls in shame and revulsion during the light of day.
Twin Peaks is full of more humorous delights for fetishists, such as Audrey’s shoes and her ability to tie a knot in a cherry stem with her tongue, as well as the agoraphobic Harold Smith’s hobby of persuading people to tell him their stories, allowing him to find pleasure vicariously. Josie insists that Harry tear her expensive new dress before they make love, and, recalling Buñuel’s rumination on fetishism, Belle de Jour, Audrey even discovers Emory Battis in One-Eyed Jacks tied upside down, his toenails polished, and a vacuum cleaner running next to him! The worst case of perversion of all, however, must be the years of incestuous rape in the Palmer family, which is at the center of the drama of Twin Peaks. The spirit ”Bob” compels Leland to molest and terrorize Laura from the ages of 12 to 17, and the theme is underlined when Audrey Horne, her face covered with a mask, is almost forced to sleep with her own father, who turns out to own the brothel at which she has just been hired.
Although Lynch is often accused of venerating the type of bleak sexuality seen in some of his films, the encounters in almost every case – (especially Blue Velvet and Lost Highway) – show no actual love, connection or satisfaction, only a temporarily quenched addiction for isolated, desperate and unwell people. In this sense, Lynch, the presumed anarchist, actually appears to validate the conventions of society that encourage the containment, or at least the healthy expenditure, of such potentially dangerous impulses.
At last we come to two recent David Lynch films that are almost companion pieces to each other, and which are his most completely surreal undertakings to date: Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. In these films, Lynch addresses boldly all of the previous elements of surrealism thus far discussed. It is impossible not to notice, and point out, the most obvious connections between the two films first. They both seem to be characters’ fantasies, in which the last quarter of the films almost explain what went on during the first three quarters. In both cases, furthermore, the main characters, under extreme duress, seem to re-invent themselves and the recent past in order to make it conform to their own wishes. Both characters are entertainers in one way or another, and are therefore well prepared to perform and re-write their own histories to make them more palatable and fulfilling.
In Lost Highway, Fred Madison is a saxophone player who suspects his wife of cheating on him and murders her in a rage. Trying to deny what he has done, (as Leland Palmer often had to), Fred uses his time in his prison cell to transport himself into a different story altogether. In his idealistic fantasy, he becomes Pete Dayton, a young, good-looking mechanic who apparently is regularly seduced by beautiful women and who has cool parents (they dress like bikers and don’t have any rules, and yet they are also sensitive and love him unconditionally). It is interesting that his backyard is surrounded by a white picket fence and that he is now a mechanic instead of a musician, thus symbolically rejecting his artistic career for a practical one, which he probably assumes is more masculine or stabilizing.
His dream starts to fall apart, however, when elements from his real life begin to intrude, as when he hears himself playing sax on the radio, and when his dead wife Renee turns up as the icy blond Alice, a gangster’s girlfriend. Worst of all, the macabre-looking “mystery man” (Robert Blake) appears to remind him of his true life and identity. When these moments occur, Fred/Pete experiences terrible headaches and he sees flashes of blue light.
Everyone in the film has two names or identities. Fred becomes Pete. Renee becomes Alice. Mr. Eddy is also known as Dick Laurent, etc. The “mystery man” has no name, but he appears to be able to be in two places at once, as during the frightening scene where he first speaks with Fred at a party. He tells him that he is also in Fred’s house at that very moment, and to prove it he hands Fred a phone and says, “Call me.” Of course, Fred himself also seems to be in two places at once when he returns to his own home at the end of the film and says into the intercom, “Dick Laurent is dead”, which is the phrase Fred heard at the beginning of the film on the other end of the intercom.
It appears that the “mystery man” is Fred’s conscious mind or at least his conscience, who turns up periodically to remind him of reality. That would explain why Fred is terrified of the man and attempts to flee from him and his video camera. It seems as though the tapes of this “mystery man” also represent the reality that Fred struggles so hard to avoid. Apparently, Fred has murdered his wife and possibly two men who may or may not have been sleeping with her, and at the beginning of the film has already begun his first wishful fantasy, in which he still lives happily with his wife. When the “mystery man” and his tapes force Fred to confront what he has done, we realize that in the real world he is being prosecuted for killing his wife. Soon after, his second fantasy begins (the Pete Dayton story), which is interrupted when too many aspects of his real life start to collide with each other. When Pete turns back into Fred, Fred travels to the “Lost Highway Hotel”, a type of existential limbo place, (like the Black Lodge in Twin Peaks), where he attempts to choose another identity to adopt, but instead sees part of the situation that led him to where he is, (Renee and Mr. Eddy having sex in one of the rooms). Speeding down an endless highway with police cars in tow, Fred freaks out due to his inability to begin another fantasy. Some have suggested that this is also the moment of his actual execution in the electric chair; the point where he can escape from reality no longer.
In Mulholland Drive, we witness the longing for a soap-opera life on the part of a failed actress and jilted lover. In a masturbatory haze before committing suicide, Diane reinvents herself as a fresh-faced aspiring actress named “Betty”, just arrived to Los Angeles, where she meets a strange amnesiac girl named “Rita” in her aunt’s apartment. The two girls embark on a Nancy Drew-like mission to solve the mystery of “Rita’s” identity, while Betty simultaneously wows executives at her auditions and steers clear of scheming studio bosses who seem to ruin lives and careers with a mere wave of the hand.
At one point, the girls find what they assume is “Rita’s” telephone number and huddle by the phone to call it. In one of the film’s greatest exchanges, Betty says, “It’s weird to be calling yourself,” to which “Rita” responds, “Maybe it’s not me.” Later, Betty sees a vision of her own death when they are led to a “Diane Selwyn’s” apartment, inside of which they find a rotting corpse, (which we later realize is Diane herself after her suicide).
“Rita” ends up seducing Betty, and later that same night, the two make their way to the mysterious club Silencio where they see and hear an elaborate demonstration about reality and illusion. This moment is the key that unlocks the mystery; as evidenced by the blue box that suddenly appears in Betty’s purse, which matches a blue key found earlier in Rita’s purse. The presentation they watch serves the same purpose for Diane as the “mystery man” and his video do for Fred in Lost Highway. It is a demand to face and deal with reality. As the music in the theater proceeds, both girls begin to cry uncontrollably and “Betty” trembles convulsively, as if battling the true identity struggling to burst her bubble.
After this, we slowly realize that Betty/Diane has fabricated everything we have just seen. Not having found success as an actress, she imagines a Hollywood filled with evil overlord executives and mysterious forces that keep honest people down. Having been rejected by her lover Camilla, Diane casts her as a clueless beauty who needs her nurturing help and who also becomes the sexual aggressor, which was the opposite in real life. Having been humiliated at being forced to watch Camilla’s relationship with the young director, Adam Kesher, she fantasizes that Camilla/Rita is not an actress at all and gets revenge on Kesher by destroying his life and career. In her reverie, Diane also is sure to suggest that Camilla only got her roles in films because of malevolent intervention on the part of the studio bosses, not due to her talent. Having paid for Camilla to be murdered in a fit of jealousy, she also rewrites history by theorizing that “Rita” was actually rescued at the last moment by a freak accident.
As with Fred in Lost Highway, Diane’s dream eventually self-destructs as reality inevitably intrudes. Unable to accept her failures, her pain, and the guilt for her crime, and tormented by the apparition of an elderly couple who seem to represent her parents or grandparents (the life she left behind), she runs into the bedroom and shoots herself in the head. Just like Fred in the previous film, Diane has reached the point where she can no longer escape the truth, and explodes violently before dying.
Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive are quite unusual, and even revolutionary, because, although many films have utilized the “it was all a dream” or the “story within a story” formats, and others, like Christopher Nolan’s popular Memento (2001), have their backwards storytelling approaches, not many films have so solidly placed themselves in characters’ - specifically, disturbed characters’ - perspectives, and not many films have maintained so subjective a point of view that it can scarcely be said if there even is an objective version of the story being told.
Some critics, (like Roger Ebert, specifically), have objected to Lynch’s work because, as they see it, the films are all a joke or a put-on, almost a deliberate trick and an insult to the audience. If this were true, only one viewing of each of his films would be necessary; the logic being: ‘if the first parts of Lost Highway or Mulholland Drive were not real, then there’s no point in sitting through them again.’ In truth, however, the mysteries of these films are hardly resolved just because we learn that most of their stories are fabricated, and there is much to be gained upon repeated viewings. As with such densely-textured masterpieces as Hitchcock’s Vertigo and Buñuel’s Belle de Jour, the apparent conclusions of these films are not resolutions at all, but are actually indicators that help us reexamine everything that has preceded these so-called endings.
Lynch risks a lot by persisting in the style of filmmaking he has developed for Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive, because adjectives like “incomprehensible”, “mystifying”, and “lengthy” do not normally seem very flattering when discussing movies, but they are nevertheless some of the most obvious words to describe his films with. It is not enough to say that they require an “acquired taste”, because many serious filmgoers will never enjoy them, no matter how many times they try. It is not easy for many people to appreciate “the juxtaposition of horror and beauty” in his films. Lynch deserves immense credit and praise for almost single-handedly resurrecting true surrealism in the cinema, preserving a sense of pure cinema in film today, and inheriting his mantle as one of the masters of the cinema of anxiety.
The Grandmother (1970)
The Elephant Man (1980)
Blue Velvet (1986)
Twin Peaks (1990-1991)
Wild at Heart (1990)
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)
Lost Highway (1997)
The Straight Story (1999)
Mulholland Drive (2001)
Inland Empire (2006)
Twin Peaks: The Return (2017)
The Elephant Man
Wild at Heart
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me
The Straight Story
Twin Peaks: The Return