David Lynch’s films, as everyone knows, are generally strange and surreal, but nothing in them is stranger than the story of his career itself—his choice of projects, his relationship to Hollywood, his falling into and out of critical and (more or less) popular favor. From the midnight-movie fever dream of Eraserhead (1977) to the relatively high-profile assignment of The Elephant Man (1980); from the even higher-profile disaster that was Dune (1984) to (arguably) his greatest artistic achievement, Blue Velvet (1986); and of course, almost too strange-to-be-true for anyone who has seen even a few minutes of any of these films, his highly successful, much hyped detour into network television (Twin Peaks, 1990-91). And all this is a prelude to The Straight Story (1999), his date with Disney. Lynch’s career is remarkable not so much for the ups and downs he’s experienced but for the fact that he has any role within the mainstream at all. Even at his most conventional, in The Elephant Man and in The Straight Story, it’s clear that Lynch’s sensibility and approach to storytelling have nothing in common with Hollywood orthodoxy. From my point of view, Lynch’s career has been a roller-coaster artistically as well as commercially, with the highs very high and the lows very low. But the failures have been honest failures, a matter of artistic sloppiness but never of selling-out, never hack work. Even Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), one of the most self-indulgent films ever unleashed by a worthy director, is unmistakably a Lynch film. If anything, Lynch’s worst movies are too Lynchian, obscure and excessive, a refreshing fault amidst a sea of commercial compromise.
To my eyes, there’s a kind of gulf between Lynch’s pre- and post-Twin Peaks films, a precise moment in his oeuvre where a transformation occurs, which can be pinpointed almost to the second. I’ve always fancied it as Lynch’s response to success, to his realization that the products of his imagination were being embraced by the public at large. That may be too convenient since the change begins with Wild at Heart, which Lynch filmed before Twin Peaks hit the air and made him a media darling. Still, what I perceive is a point at which Lynch’s style becomes self-conscious and reflexive, when Lynch starts striving to be “Lynchian.” There’s no question of his betraying his own sensibility, of forcing himself into the conventional Hollywood mold. It’s a more forgivable, but still insidious matter of forcing himself into a self-created mold, of pandering not to the general audience but to his own admirers.
Eraserhead and Blue Velvet are Lynch’s greatest films, I think, and the purest realizations of slightly differing strands in his career. Eraserhead is a truly experimental movie, a product of Lynch’s imagination with only the most distant of references to a world outside its own dreamscape. Blue Velvet is grounded in a more prosaic, accessible representation of reality and a more conventional narrative structure, but it goes places that are just as mysterious, unfamiliar, and inexplicable—what is conventional in Blue Velvet sets up a contrast and a tension that render its stranger and more subterranean qualities all the more uncanny and disturbing. If there’s one thing that distinguishes Lynch from all but a handful of his fellow American filmmakers, it’s his devotion to the mysterious and the irrational, to loose ends, shadowy spaces, suggestive sounds, and open-ended stories. Both Eraserhead and Blue Velvet behave according to something like a dream-logic—they may be weird and inexplicable, but if you respond to them, they feel unmistakably right, and much richer than movies in which everything is self-evident and spelled out.
No one could argue that Wild at Heart, the later Twin Peaks, or most of Lynch’s more recent output (The Straight Story excepted), isn’t weird enough. Wild at Heart is full of bizarre situations and characters, from Diane Ladd covering herself in lipstick to the Good Fairy descending in her bubble to set everything right in the end, and Twin Peaks became more and more unhinged with each episode. But there’s a difference, I think, between “weird” and “strange.” It’s all too easy to be weird—stick a dwarf in a red room and screw with the soundtrack and you’ll get points for originality. But strange is a more instinctual, elusive quality, and a more lasting one. Weird may be satisfying simply for being out of the ordinary, especially in a culture where the conventional is so all-pervasive, but it’s still a surface effect—it’s attention-grabbing but superficial. Strange, though, exerts a pull, it draws you in to a place you’ve never been and may not understand, but which takes on a palpable and seductive existence. Weird is an effect; strange is a space, a mood, a world.
Eraserhead is full of weirdness—Henry’s hair, the bleeding chicken, the woman in the radiator—but its spaces and moods and the behavior of its characters form a whole which is, on some level, totally convincing and encompassing. You inhabit Eraserhead, you don’t simply watch or react to it. When the woman in Eraserhead disappears into the bath, or when, in Blue Velvet, Kyle McLachlan and Laura Dern’s walk through the tree-lined streets at night blends into the camera’s journey into the severed ear, it may seem weird in retrospect, but at the time it’s strangely natural, it’s transporting. The distinction between strange and weird is, by its very nature, a fluid and highly personal one—a viewer may respond to a buried logic in a scene that strikes someone else as arbitrary and superficial. But for me, when a strange-looking man sitting at a bar next to Sailor and Lulu starts barking in Wild at Heart, it doesn’t feel like the product of Lynch’s instinctive delving into his own subconscious—it feels like he’s asking himself, “What can I do to be weird here?”
Lost Highway (1997) was some kind of return to form, not a masterpiece by any means but, after Wild at Heart, the later Twin Peaks and the Twin Peaks movie, and the truly horrendous and mercifully short-lived television show On the Air (1992), a very good sign. It has some of the excessiveness that I find so alienating about Lynch’s lesser work, and it’s a pretty unpleasant, heartless film—its characters, unlike Henry or Jeffrey or Cooper, are mostly pretty despicable. But not since Eraserhead had Lynch given his imagination such free reign. I can’t quite bring myself to like Lost Highway, but like it or not, it’s exhilarating to see such a narratively complex, dark, and mysterious film sneak its way into a wide release. And there are passages in Lost Highway that are Lynch at his peerlessly creepy, cinematically seductive best. I can think of very few narrative filmmakers with Lynch’s feel for the medium’s purely expressive potential, for what a movie can be, visually and aurally and spatially. There’s a moment early in Lost Highway, after Patricia Arquette has mysteriously disappeared from the house she shares with Bill Pullman, when Pullman, full of dread, explores the house (which Lynch has transformed into a universe of hidden, imaginary spaces) and finally passes into and through the shadows into something like another dimension. When he lets himself go like this, when he conjures such mystery and horror out of nothing more than a simple room, Lynch becomes that almost unimaginable figure, the Hollywood avant-gardist.
Perhaps the strangest thing about Lynch’s resume is that his most conventional movie by far, The Straight Story, precisely because it is so conventional on so many levels, throws Lynch’s distinctive qualities into relief (if you look at it right). I’m not about to make a case that The Straight Story is a masterpiece—in some ways its Disneyness is all too apparent, in its sentimentality, the basic decency of just about every character, and the script’s easy platitudes. But it’s just about the best Hallmark Special imaginable, and if that sounds like faint praise it’s not meant to—it’s a movie with severe limitations, but watching Lynch work within those limitations is exhilarating, and seeing him tackle a project that’s largely free of everything we call “Lynchian” lets us get a clearer look at some of his less obvious qualities.
It may not be immediately apparent in films like Blue Velvet and Lost Highway with their bizarre characters and striking situations, but Lynch has always been a supremely patient storyteller, much more interested in creating a mood than in rushing from incident to incident, and here his unhurried pacing fits the story, of Alvin Straight’s journey by lawn-mower, perfectly. Free to concentrate on building the mood of each scene, Lynch does so with his characteristic mastery. The words in The Straight Story are, more often than not, clichéd and simplistic: the whole spiel about the sticks and “family,” the platitudes about being brothers and about Alvin making the journey on his own. But scene after scene transcends the words because of the space Lynch creates around them, the stillness and silence and slowness, and the intense, mysterious physical immediacy which has always been a Lynch trademark. Lynch is a master of ambient sound, using subtle and barely noticed but evocative noises (the crackle of the fire, the chanting of the cicadas, the rumble of the grain elevators, the vague but unmistakable sounds of dusk, of night, of dawn) to draw us into his scenes, to give them an aural depth. And he’s surely one of the great masters of nighttime. His night scenes are compositions in shadow and shades of darkness, with a mysterious, seductive, often menacing quality which suggests so much more than it shows and which seems to make anything possible. I can’t think of any other director who portrays night as we experience it, not as solid, flat blackness, but as infinite depth. He’s a director of suggestion, and at night everything seems to be suggested, each shadow seems to conceal whole worlds.
It’s these strengths that are, not more in evidence, but more conspicuous, in The Straight Story because everything else—the sex, the violence, the eccentricity, and the narrative experimentation—have been pared away. I don’t want Lynch to make another Straight Story: much of what has been pared away is greatly missed—the genuine originality and inexplicability of his best work. No matter how great a hired gun Lynch proves to be, I’d rather he used his powers to explore the inner workings of his own imagination instead of the more humdrum substance of The Straight Story. But to my eyes, in movies like Wild at Heart and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and in parts of Lost Highway and his newest film, Mulholland Drive (2001), Lynch throws a bunch of weirdness on the screen without creating that space, that sense of presence and suggestiveness, that invites us into his imagined worlds. It’s this ability to create a landscape that we can inhabit, through his mastery of the visual and the aural, that I consider Lynchian, and that makes The Straight Story in some ways more Lynchian than a more apparently characteristic film like Wild at Heart.
Mulholland Drive is interesting for wedding the more conventional narrative structures of Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, and Wild at Heart to the pure dreamscapes of Eraserhead and Lost Highway. Like Lost Highway, it takes place in a world that appears more or less like our own, but which we sense, from the very beginning, obeys its own rules. And like Lost Highway, the narrative such as it is breaks down somewhere midway through, fracturing and spinning off in a completely unforeseeable direction, for reasons which are impossible to determine. Most of Mulholland Drive—the monster in the alley, the fiendish old couple, the freakish landlady, the silent, humorless Italian producers with their violent reaction to sub-par espresso and their full-sized dwarf of a boss—feels forced and superficial to me. But Lynch has partly salvaged what was, as everyone knows, originally a TV pilot, by exploding the narrative, systematically transforming the characters, and shifting into a final section that is much more seductive and serious. He suggests, but only suggests, that the story we’ve been following is a kind of dream, giving a new weight and significance to what has come before by casting it in retrospect into the realm of idealized fantasy. Without solving the puzzle, he takes the movie to a deeper, darker, and more imaginatively resonant place. I’m reluctant to say that it redeems the whole movie, but by adding a dimension and creating a whole set of relationships and tensions between the two parts, Lynch certainly succeeds in transforming an unresolved and apparently disappointing TV pilot into a film with a shape and a wholeness of its own, a film which is somehow more than the sum of its parts.
David Lynch is an indispensable filmmaker even at his worst—excess is a relatively insignificant problem in the context of a national cinema that’s generally so literal-minded and fearful of experimentation. But on his own terms, Lynch, like any artist whose work is so intuitive, so closely concerned with the subconscious, is at his best when he finds a balance between the strange and the familiar. Lynch is valuable because he explodes conventions, both cinematic and psychological, but it’s not enough for him to be as strange as possible—even an approach based on throwing off the fetters of the conventional and the logical demands a kind of discipline. The trick is to allow one’s imagination free play, but to be able to recognize what is genuinely strange and unsettling, rather than merely bizarre, to distinguish between the rare specimens you’ve unearthed from the darkness of the ocean-floor and the sea-weed clinging to you when you emerge from the water. It’s a completely unscientific process, and one that can’t be forced, so in a sense it’s achievement enough that Lynch has remained devoted to exploring his own subconscious, however successful he’s been in conveying his findings to the screen. Still, I don’t think we’ll see another movie as deeply uncanny and original as Eraserhead or Blue Velvet until he takes a deep breath and dives down far enough to leave behind those aspects of his style that have become reflexive, that are recognizably but superficially “Lynchian.” Only then will he make a movie that follows the unpredictable, inexplicable wanderings of his own subconscious rather than the increasingly straight and well-worn path his career seems to be taking, a movie that would be as startling for audiences now as his first films were when they appeared.