The 100 Essential Directors Part 6

Ernst Lubitsch to Vincente Minnelli

by PopMatters Staff

18 August 2011


David Lynch

David Lynch
(1946 - present)

Three Key Films: Eraserhead (1977), Blue Velvet (1986), Mulholland Dr. (2001)

Underrated: Lost Highway (1997) Predating/predicting Hollywood’s neo-noir trend and time travel/alternate reality chic, Lost Highway is both jagged and jazzy, a Möbius strip built from a man’s paranoia concerning his mysterious wife. As the couple, a perfectly cast Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette navigate the labyrinthine plot, which also includes manic, startling supporting turns from Robert Blake and Robert Loggia.

Unforgettable: In Blue Velvet, the terrifying and explosive Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) holds Dorothy and Jeffrey hostage during a meeting with his strange collection of friends. One of these friends, Ben (Dean Stockwell) reveals the one key to Booth’s black heart: Roy Orbison. Stockwell’s lip-sync showstopper (one of many similar scenes in Lynch’s movies) casts a permanent pall over “In Dreams”. After seeing Blue Velvet, this is the soundtrack for a nightmare.

The Legend: David Lynch’s bare-bones biography reads, “Filmmaker. Born Missoula, MT. Eagle Scout.” Regardless of the many accolades and acolytes he’s collected over the years, there’s something fundamentally simple and straightforward about Lynch’s public self. During the past few years, one favorite manifestation of this quality was his daily Internet weather report, which consisted of looking out the window and reporting what he saw.

But most audience members who have taken in a Lynch film, and taken it seriously, must know there is all sort of activity happening under the surface. Much has been written of Lynch’s fixation with the dark and strange undercurrents of middle class or otherwise mainstream existence. We see this in Blue Velvet’s introductory, subterranean camera shift and concluding mechanical robin, in Lost Highway’s cocktail party-turned quantum quandary, and in Inland Empire’s (2006) many veils and portals. 

Given all of the comparisons of dark and light—and most are intentional, as with the films’ fetishistic value system of blondes versus brunettes—it would be easy to slap the Manichean label on Lynch and call it a day. Yet what gives his films their lasting power is the synthesis of these mundane and nightmarish qualities. He’s not simply presenting “A” and “not-A” and inviting us to compare. At their best, Lynch’s films stir quantum reality and ask the audience to ponder the nature of existence.

Lynch defines his spiritual practice of Transcendental Meditation as “diving within”. His films have long done the same, with the camera at times mimicking a physical penetration of the body. The most potent moments of Lynch’s movies are those that provide the shock of recognition that the visible world is only the surface of existence. For example, seemingly physical enigmas such as Eraserhead’s Lady in the Radiator and Twin Peaks’ (1990) Black Lodge are encountered through emotional trauma.

Mulholland Dr., the pinnacle of Lynch’s career, turns on such a moment. Just as the film’s first half threatens to become inscrutable, Betty (Naomi Watts) and Rita (Laura Harring) make a middle-of-the-night pilgrimage to a place called Club Silencio. During Rebekah Del Rio’s recording of “Llorando” (which she crucially lip-syncs in the film), Betty and Rita are forced to confront the façade in which they exist. As this scene triggers the film’s biggest narrative transition into Betty’s actual life (the tortured experience of failed actress Diane Selwyn), it creates a profound unity of structure, plot, staging, and subtextual/extra-textual motivation. Or, to use the director’s TM language, scenes like this reveal “infinite oceans” of consciousness from what previously looked like ill-fitting pieces of a puzzle. The realization of all-knowingness is both the journey and the reward of any great Lynch film. Thomas Britt


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