The Saturday Auteur

David Lynch: Severed ears, altered states, and damn fine coffee
By Cal Brockel | Film+TV | 7 November 2020
This article is part of HERO Dailies – Essential culture, curated daily and also part of The Saturday Auteur

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THE SATURDAY AUTEUR: Exploring the life and work of revered directors

In a career spanning six decades, David Lynch has carved out a cultural shape that fits only him. He creates worlds of curious archetypes, extreme violence and moody vistas; forever clashing the cheerfully mundane with the creeping terrors of the collective unconscious. Perhaps the greatest testament to his innovation and idiosyncrasy is that any filmmaker who visually explores the surreal nature of reality will inevitably be described as ‘Lynchian’.

Twin Peaks season 3 by David Lynch, 2017

Red ants and white picket fences

Born in 1946, David Lynch would later describe his childhood as a carefree ‘dreamworld’ of droning airplanes and blue skies. He was awakened, though, upon seeing a cherry tree swarming with insects.

‘So you see, there’s this beautiful world but you look a bit closer and it’s all red ants’ –  Lynch

In the late sixties, he began making experimental short films. His first trials were film sculptures, devoid of narrative but heavy on form. His half-hour film The Grandmother was a success at film festivals and gained him access to the Centre for Advanced Film Studies in LA.

‘Life is complicated, so films are allowed to be too’

The filmmaker got his first feature Eraserhead greenlit with a $10,000 budget in 1972 and the rich expressionistic masterpiece went on to become a cult hit of hallucinatory imagery and twisted Americana.   

Following this success, Lynch found his side door into the mainstream with the tragically compassionate Elephant Man, and the campy Dune with varying effectiveness. While Dune is an uneven scattergun of dreamlike visuals and glorious schlock, Elephant Man is tender and truthful, and garnered six Academy Award nominations. With critics undecided, Lynch delivered Blue Velvet, the crystallization of his early work. He picked up another nomination for Best Director and silenced his loudest naysayers.

Blue Velvet dir. David Lynch 1986

"...experience the so-called reality"

However Lynch is perhaps best known to the mainstream audience not for a film, but for a TV show. The mystery/soap opera Twin Peaks first aired in 1990, the same year that Lynch collected the Palm D’or at Cannes for Wild At Heart – a chaotic and hostile road movie with a Wizard of Oz twist. Twin Peaks was a unique experiment in small-screen storytelling. The familiar opening, the discovery of the body of a young local girl, was used to crack open the secrets and psyches of the community. The darkness behind the pleasantries. The ants on the cherry tree.

Lynch’s later works have come to be known as his ‘hard’ films: the mobius strip storytelling of Lost Highway, the glossy illusion of Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire’s unsettling rabbit hole. In these films, time is meaningless, characters are merely archetypes, and the questions are as elusive as the answers. They are visions. They follow the logic of dreams, revealing themselves through visual association rather than cause and effect. They are not to be ‘figured out’, but to be fallen into. There is nowhere to land, just shifting sands of meaning.

Within this blueprint, Lynch meditates on the macabre and explicit strangeness of our subconscious as it percolates behind the picket fence.

Eraserhead by David Lynch, 1977

Blue Velvet by David Lynch, 1986

David Lynch once stated that “Film is a great way to give shape to the subconscious,” and Blue Velvet may be where he most successfully achieves this.

Amidst the white picket fences of Americana, Kyle Maclachlan finds a severed ear in the undergrowth. In a Nancy Drew leap, he teams up with a detective’s daughter to solve the curious mystery. He is drawn into a twisted world that shadows his peaceful existence. We are invited to be voyeurs, to seek the swarming violence beneath the surface of our self-control. The ear in the freshly mowed lawn.       

Blue Velvet is his first film in colour, which Lynch employs to show these extremes. The lush artificial hues of the daylight scenes only heighten the erotic shadows nesting in the lounge singers apartment. He creates dreamlike visuals that implore the viewer to interpret, not solve; not take the film seriously, but sincerely.

The film has been criticised for its portrayal of women, Lynch uses the two lead female characters as another stand-in for his central light-dark extreme, which leaves a whiff of the virgin-whore to the finished piece.

It’s notable also for the chilling performance from Dennis Hopper. Torn from the nightmares of suburbia, his erratic behaviour encapsulates the otherworldly feel, and danger, of the night scenes.

Blue Velvet won several awards from the National Society of Films Critics – including best director and best supporting actor for Hopper – and cemented Lynch’s place among the modern masters.   

Blue Velvet by David Lynch, 1986

Mulholland Drive by David Lynch, 2001

Mulholland Drive was assembled from the ashes of a cancelled spin-off to Twin Peaks. It’s peak Lynch – a Hitchcockian dreamscape that lingers on what it finds interesting. The scenes rhyme rather than follow on; there’s a logic to the narrative, but the guidewires never feel secure. 

The story, such as it is, follows Betty, a fresh budding starlet and Rita, an amnesiac fatale, as they embark to discover where Rita came from. Rita’s identity is an invention, Betty’s is so cliché that it might as well be.

In Mulholland Drive, Lynch has abandoned reality in exchange for Hollywood. The rational half of Lynch’s film is glitz, off-ramps, and the Hollywood idyll. The unsettling dreamworlds that slowly invade the picture are in fact closer to truth, where our quivering selves disrupt the immaculate ideal.

The last act flourish switches the chronology and principal actors. It’s disorienting, but we are pulled along by our innate curiosity. Our role as the audience begs us to try and solve the story, but the film continues to remind us that it’s futile. It may be a dream, but that would mean accepting the harsh, eroticised Hollywood as reality.

Of Lynch’s ‘hard’ films, Mulholland Drive is the most accessible. It is a glorious blending of eerie, hypnotic strangeness, lush sensual imagery and a tender attention to the intimate that is sometimes missing from his catalogue.

Mulholland Drive by David Lynch, 2001

What to watch by David Lynch:

  • Eraserhead, 1977
  • Mulholland Drive, 2001
  • Blue Velvet, 1986
  • Lost Highway, 1997
  • Twin Peaks, 1990

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