Something strange always seems to happen in David Lynch’s films.
Ever since the first drones of white noise crept into our ears and the first flicker of light among darkness peeked out at us from his bizarre art-student project/B-grade midnight movie Eraserhead, Lynch has found a way to unsettle audiences even in the most ordinary of ways. His films have a way of drawing you into even the most banal of events – a cup of coffee, overheard conversations, even the flicker of an electric lamp is charged with significance and meaning – that there’s interesting lessons to be gained from watching his films, for anyone trying to tell a story that merges the ordinary with the extraordinary.
Eraserhead itself comes across as some nightmarish projection of fatherhood – Lynch’s alter-ego (played by his long time friend Jack Nance) stumbles his way from a vague relationship into a horrific child-rearing scenario, set against a barren industrial cityscape and a pencil-making factory. There are dreams of a lady who lives (and sings) underneath the radiator, and visions of a man far off in space (or deep within the earth) who pulls leavers and seems to control the world.
The child Nance has to raise is possibly one of the most horrific things put on screen: a wailing, gnashing, swaddled phallus – Lynch has famously refused to say what he used to actually create the monstrous baby, though there are some fairly disgusting rumours.
Eraserhead is akin to Kafka’s The Trial, except the protagonist here is not detained and charged for a crime, but persecuted into paternity. This is Lynch’s common theme: making the home-life into something unusual, something dark and mysterious, and often terrifying. He’s probably never as blatant with this as he is in Eraserhead, and it’s a shockingly effective introduction into his films.
There’s a term commonly used to describe Lynch’s work: unheimlich. Closely related to uncanny, the term is more literally translated as ‘unhomely’. The familiar and the comfortable is rendered something different, something strange.
After the wondrous and saddening The Elephant Man (for which Lynch was nominated for an Oscar), and the bloated and tonally confused Dune adaptation, Lynch returned to his own stories and his own tastes with Blue Velvet. If you haven’t ever seen Blue Velvet, it’s worth not reading ahead and just tracking down a copy immediately. Possibly the most pristine of his visions, it is as classically Lynchian as Psycho is Hitchcockian.
Blue Velvet follows the steps and missteps of Jeffrey Beaumont (again alter-ego, this time Kyle McLachlan) as he journeys from his idyllic white-picket fence lifestyle, complete with aw-shucks innocent girlfriend, into the dark and mysterious underworld that lurks within his neighbourhood. The world of light is mawkish and naive compared to the dark personified by Dennis Hopper’s psychopathic, nitrous-inhaling Don, and again Lynch pushes the viewer to examine just how closely the strange is to our everyday lives, if we scratch the surface but a little.
The themes and ideas set up in Blue Velvet were then writ large in his TV series Twin Peaks, followed by the film (prequel and sequel) Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Lynch held audiences for (almost) two seasons, as they fell in love with the search for the answer to Who Killed Laura Palmer? There was murder in the household, while everyone drank their coffee and ate their cherry pie. It was the forerunner to The X-Files, and then to other high-concept long form narrative that now populates every inch of our TV screens.
Wild At Heart took the cornerstone of American pop culture – The Wizard of Oz – and fashioned it into a grand road trip narrative across weird and wild middle-America. It crass and disturbing, but only Lynch can make the sentiment that ‘there’s no place like home’ still work in a 90s film full of thrash metal and Elvis Presley tunes.
However, to really feel the force of Lynch’s unhomely aesthetic, it’s worth watching Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. Both films inform each other, and turn everything Lynch had offered before on its head. Gone is the sentimental and hopeful underpinnings, gone is the innocence. The light and the dark aren’t as clearly distinct in these films and what at first seems like the naive and innocent is suddenly revealed to be the dangerous nightmare.
If Eraserhead was about the fear of being a father, Lost Highway is almost a film about the fear of jealousy. The protagonist here discovers he is the antagonist, and that it’s not enough to hit the road and run away from danger – as Lynch’s heroes had in the past – because the danger is always there, the darkness is within. Take a look at this scene where Pullman’s everyman meets the manifestation of his inner rage:
The terror is at home, it is inside the home, and it’s there because it was invited in. Totally terrifying.
Mulholland Drive started life as a TV pilot, lost financial backing, and was then given a boost to turn it into a two-hour feature. Lynch ran with that, and the film literally turns on its head two-thirds of the way through, challenging the medium and the constraints of traditional narrative as the audience has to decide what is real and what is a nightmare. That he set this in Hollywood, and the world of actors and directors and filmmaking, is evidence enough of how Lynch eschews mainstream narrative (as much as he appropriates it at the same time).
In Lynch’s Hollywood, one loses oneself, one’s image is repeated infinitely until the soul disappears, and we become the ghastly creation we imagine out of our nightmares. Mulholland Drive is a film of broken dreams, where good intentions meet bad ends, and it becomes impossible to see just where any of us have a chance to stop it, as there’s always someone making life bad for us, just like in this scene here:
Lynch’s stories are worth watching, not for their weirdness as far too many cinema students are wont to do, chuckling at the non sequiturs and false irony. Rather, they’re worth seeing because of how they treat story, traditional stories, and how Lynch nudges them into unexpected places. He borrows from horror, and mystery, and crime, and presents road movies and bildungsromans and stories from our past that have faint recollections of familiarity.
He takes what we know, and what we’re comfortable with, and challenges us to change, and to do something different. For writers, and for storytellers, it’s worth experiencing.