More noise than signal

David Lynch

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film

If you’re in the market for a director you can really dissect with near impunity, American auteur David Lynch and his frequently bizarre output provides a golden opportunity. We dive into his career and out the other side in our latest podcast, and nothing will ever be the same again. Note the occurrences surrounding the man behind ‘Winkies’.

We pick up his Lynch’s career right at the start with his first feature, 1977’s Eraserhead, which in a great many ways sets the template for most of the discussion that will occur in his subsequent work. It’s a narratively sparse yet impenetrable work, as frequent collaborator Jack Nance plays a young man surprised to find he’s now a father to a bawling mutant son, living in an industrial hellscape and granted succour only by the infrequent musical performances of a girl living inside his radiator. Or something like that. For our money, it’s Lynch’s most ludicrous film, certainly in terms of the story it would purport to tell, and really holds little water at all in that regards. Undeniably, however, it does showcase Lynch’s amazing visual flair, shot in a harsh monochrome that lends itself to the oppressive gloom and surrealism of the rest of the film. It’s a shame that the central story is so out-there bananas that it’s so difficult to engage with. One hell of a calling card, and as a historical document for looking at Lynch’s career progression it is essential viewing, albeit a viewing we don’t particularly enjoy.

The Elephant Man maintains the black and white of his debut, although in every other respect it is a much more conventional film. John Hurt takes the lead in this more-or-less true tale of John Merrick, a man suffering from tremendous deformities, exhibited in a circus freak show before a passing physician played by Anthony Hopkins takes an interest in his wellbeing and removes him to his hospital and makes a case study of him. While Merrick soon shows considerable signs of improvement, before long Hopkins is left wondering if he is exploiting him just as Freddie Jones’ circus owner was. While this doesn’t really feature any of the weird hallmarks that we’ve come to expect from a “Lynch” film, which is practically a sub-genre of its own by this point, it’s perhaps Lynch’s best film – certainly for those without a tolerance for his surrealist side. Brilliant performances all round, assured yet minimal direction and a great story make for a great film – although given its differences from Lynch’s typical M.O., perhaps it’s not a great Lynch film. If you see what we mean.

In a move that now seem unthinkable, Lynch moved on to the world of big budget would-be blockbusters, although the reality was something of a critical and commercial disaster. In the wake of Star WarsDune on a superficial level ploughs a similar furrow, and Lynch’s first two features show he’s familiar with working special effects into his films, so I can perhaps see the sense in tapping Lynch for tale of intergalactic grudges, betrayal and revenge, with a side order of messiah prophecies. Kyle MacLachlan, a familiar face over the course of Lynch’s career, takes the lead as the young noble who leads a guerrilla war. Frank Herbert’s source material draws on a bunch of sources and themes, along with a dense and well-realised universe, and it seems as though Lynch and team have decided to condense as much of that into the film as possible, which has had the ultimate effect of diluting all of it, and making the central narrative all but unfollowable unless you’ve also read the book. There’s a huge variance in quality of the effects work, which doesn’t help matters, and there’s a fair amount of scenery chewing on display, but there’s also some amazing set and character design, some incredible cinematography and a great soundtrack. A real mixed bag, and certainly flawed up the wazoo, it’s a film that deserves more than simply being ignored.

Something of a return to more expected oddness with Blue Velvet, which again features MacLachlan in the lead, this time as a young man drawn into a mystery after finding a severed ear on the way home from work. After the police stall on the investigation, Kyle starts his own investigation with the help of a policeman’s daughter (Laura Dern), which leads him into the occasionally baffling world of a nightclub singer and a gang of lunatic criminals headed by Dennis Hopper, giving a typically Hopperian scenery-chewing turn. Typically held amongst the top tier of Lynch’s output, we don’t have quite the same opinion. There’s too many weird, surreal moments that undermine the suspense and threat that it’s trying to build, but not enough of them to build to the dream logic that characterises the best of his work. It’s a little disappointing, all things considered.

Wild at Heart features my all time favourite IMDB one line summation – “Young lovers Sailor and Lula run from the variety of weirdos that Lula’s mom has hired to kill Sailor.” There’s not much to add to that, really, apart from saying that the said weirdos are headed up by Willem Dafoe, so they’re quite weird indeed, and also that Sailor is played by Nic Cage, so the pair doing the running aren’t significantly less weird. It’s a road trip thriller that’s played to an extent for laughs, which as just as well as from the outset it’s impossible to take it at all seriously. It’s rather adolescent in tone, and really hasn’t aged at all well. It’s a rather different tone than Lynch’s usual, and one he’s not returned to, making this an intriguing curate’s egg in his career but, frankly, a pretty poor film.

Many will say that Twin Peaks represents the peak of Lynch’s career, which is why we mention it here. However, it’s not a film, so it’s a little outside of our remit. Crashing on…

Lost Highway, however, is a film. We think. A pretty weird one, with an entirely baffling storyline that is pretty much the dictionary definition of inexplicable, but a film it remains. On the balance of probabilities. Bill Pullman’s jazz musician is freaked out by the delivery of hidden camera footage of his own house, and further freaked out after a bizarre encounter with a guest at a party and his subsequent, apparently (possibly) related framing for the murder of his wife. Not that this matters a great deal, as after some time in jail he inexplicably changes into Balthazar Getty, playing a young mechanic who had went missing some days prior. He inadvisably gets involved with a mob boss’ moll, played by Patricia Arquette, who also played Pullman’s wife earlier. At which point the film takes off the kid gloves and gets really weird. Too weird for its own good, really, as while its not difficult to follow assuming that you don’t look for little things like cause and effect, it almost flows in that dream logic way, but not as successfully as later works. The formula is refined and perfected later on, but that’s not to say that Lost Highway is without its appeal. One of Lynch’s better outings.

Supposedly a rebuff to those who had slammed him as incapable of following conventional logic, although an easier rejoinder may have been to remind them of The Elephant ManThe Straight Story finds Richard Farnsworth’s Alvin Straight undertake a 240 mile journey to visit his estranged, critically ill brother on a lawnmower, after his fading eyesight sees his driving license revoked. While, yes, it proves the point that Lynch could, if he choose, follow a conventional narrative, and ensure a heartwarming and touching central performance from his lead character, this shouldn’t have been in doubt in the first case. Anyway, it’s left us with a charming film that’s one of his career highlights, although not one that has any of the hallmarks of a Lynch film.

In many ways the main event of this podcast, Mulholland Drive draws together the threads Lynch had been tugging at in Lost Highway and Blue Velvet and combines them into a beguilingly strange tapestry. Laura Harring suffers from amnesia after a car accident, and dazedly wanders into Naomi Watts’ naive wannabe actress who decides to take care of her and help her work out her identity, and tugging on this thread rather unravels the tapestry of reality. There’s one critical addition to this outing in the shape of Justin Theroux’s character, a director who soon becomes wound up in the unfolding weirdness but who is just as bemused about the whole affair as we are, giving us something of an anchor into the sea of fluid reality/unreality. This, to us, is pretty close to the Platonic ideal of the style Lynch has been gunning for since Eraserhead, and it remainds an astonishing film to this day, full of details that reward multiple viewings but, honestly, won’t really help you make sense of events. And that’s fine.

Which brings us to his latest film, at the time of recording, 2006’s Inland Empire which we understandably had high hopes on the basis of its preceding masterwork. Sadly, Inland Empire is best thought of as a Mulholland Drive cover version from a third-string pub band. It reheats essentially identical themes and tropes, with Laura Dern returning in the lead with support from Justin Theroux and Jeremy Irons, and warps reality in much the same ways. However while Mulholland Drive had a lush, glossy world to evoke, Inland Empire is unrelentingly ugly, in part due to being shot on SD digital video which looks super-nasty in this 4K age. It’s about as richly detailed, world-wise as Mulholland Drive was, but there’s little in the way of a hook to get involved with Lynch’s typically impenetrable reality-bending and as such it’s very easy to loose patience, especially given that at three hours it’s already a bit of an ask given the work an audience must put in to get the most out of his films.

So, there’s the skinny on his film output. Some we love, some we hate, just as you’d hope from someone with such a strong vision. You can’t please all of the people all of the time, but when he does please, he’s very, very pleasing. I may be mixing my clichés there. We can only hope you find our discussion of Davey-boy as interesting as the man himself.