David Lynch: A Surrealist Symphony in Four Movements

David Lynch. Courtesy of Leveled Mag.

David Lynch. Courtesy of Leveled Mag.

Robert Altman always referred to his enormously diverse body of work as “one big movie.” Precisely how Altman interpreted the linkage between each of his distinctive pictures is left for film analysts to discuss and debate. This is precisely how I feel about the film career of David Lynch, which began in 1977 with his breakthrough midnight movie sensation, “Eraserhead,” and may (or may not) have ended in 2006 with his epic tenth feature, “Inland Empire.”

Taken as “one big movie,” Lynch’s filmography is a deliriously abstract ode to the troublingly unreal elements in everyday life. His characters are dreamers whose fantasy world is disrupted by the harsh (often blue) light of reality. There’s a dark humor in Lynch’s depiction of his character’s delusions, but also an unmistakable compassion so sincere that most of his imitators have failed to replicate (or comprehend) it. Lynch’s eccentrics may enjoy lip-synching to familiar tunes, but the artificiality of their mimed performance cannot conceal how the lyrics often expose the raw emotion reverberating within their hearts.

Like the severed ear in “Eraserhead” or the blue box in “Mulholland Dr.,” Lynch’s films are a portal into our most cherished fever dreams and most horrifying nightmares. With the exception of his 1984 sci-fi misfire, “Dune” (which Lynch disowned after not being granted final cut), and his 1992 extended finale to his TV show, “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me,” I’ve interpreted Lynch’s career as a single surrealist symphony in four movements. Each movement consists of a complementary double feature taking the audience on a linear journey through Lynch’s work.

If there is one quote that encapsulates the essence of these films, it’s an excerpt from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad that Lynch quoted at the Chicago premiere of “Inland Empire” on January 27th, 2007 (I was sitting in the second row)…

“We are like the spider. We weave our life and then move along in it. We are like the dreamer who dreams and then lives in the dream. This is true for the entire universe.”

I. Monsters in the Radiator

Lynch’s first two films are shot in stark black-and-white, a stylistic choice that accentuates the alienation of their central characters. Whereas “Eraserhead” enters the jittery brain of Henry Spencer (Jack Nance), a man intensely afraid of sex and parenthood, 1980’s “The Elephant Man” regards John Merrick (John Hurt), a monstrously deformed man who desperately desires for everything that Henry fears. Both are comforted at night by female apparitions promising that “in Heaven, everything is fine.” Neither man feels a sense of belonging in the universe, though while Henry’s imagination is arguably to blame for transforming his newborn baby into a hideous creature, John’s deformities are very much a reality.

These films are also linked by the brilliant sound design of Alan Splet, whose death in 1994 didn’t prevent his spirit from haunting every one of Lynch’s subsequent features. Hurt’s performance is one of cinema’s most extraordinary achievements, considering how much emotion he can convey without the use of his face. As for Nance, he somehow manages to nail the singular weirdness of his director, serving as a stand-in for Lynch (which is reflected in his outfit and hairstyle). Henry and John also share Lynch’s stubbornness in making their own life choices, however ill-advised they may be. By the way, The Lady in the Radiator’s serenade of “In Heaven” is in itself an act of lip-synching, since songwriter Peter Ivers dubbed his own voice over actress Laurel Near…

II. Under the Rainbow

Since Lynch’s work is so entrenched in a warped fascination with American nostalgia, it’s only fitting that the director would be interested in repeatedly paying homage to Victor Fleming’s beloved 1939 Hollywood classic, “The Wizard of Oz.” 1986’s “Blue Velvet” and 1990’s “Wild at Heart” both revolve around a pair of innocent lovers who awaken to the jarring strangeness of their deceptively ordinary world. In many ways, “Velvet” is a precursor to Lynch’s cult classic series, “Twin Peaks,” with Kyle MacLachlan investigating a grisly crime committed in an all-too-tranquil town. The “Oz” references in “Velvet” are rather subdued–a key example would be the name of Isabella Rossellini’s victimized singer, Dorothy. She was directed by Lynch to croon the titular song in the same wistful style that Judy Garland sang “Over the Rainbow.”

In contrast, the “Oz” homages are so in-your-face in “Heart” that you half-expect to see L. Frank Baum receive co-writing credit. “In-your-face” would also be an appropriate way to describe “Heart” as a whole, which takes the bizarre nuances simmering beneath “Velvet” and brings them surging to the forefront. This results in a smorgasbord of self-contained, Felliniesque vignettes with little to no relation to the romance between our heroes, Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) and Lula Fortune (“Velvet”’s Laura Dern). Some of these sequences are hilariously inexplicable (such as the clip below, featuring Jack Nance), while others disturbingly portray the universe’s indifference to suffering humanity. In both films, Lynch decimates the romantic notion of loyalty projected onto a beloved pet dog, as the animalistic nature of the creature takes over when its owner is in peril. No wonder the “divine” figures that materialize at the conclusion of each film (an animatronic bird and Glinda the Good Witch herself) are glaringly fake.

III. Lost and Found

Admittedly the weirdest double bill of the bunch,1997’s “Lost Highway” and 1999’s “The Straight Story,” are both “road movies” played at entirely different tempos. While the camera hurtles down a seemingly endless stretch of road in “Highway,” it slows to a crawl in “Story,” and it must be said that slow and steady does indeed win the race. Critics didn’t hesitate in dismissing “Highway” as incoherent gibberish while praising “Story” as a maturation of form, yet such shallow observations fail to acknowledge the distinctively Lynchian traits of both films. The male protagonists are haunted by the loss of loved ones, and deal with loss in strikingly different ways. In “Highway,” jazz saxophonist Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) is so bewildered by his fractured memories that his very identity fractures in two. The film’s chaotic structure reflects Fred’s jumbled mind to an exceedingly confounding degree.

“Story” is easily Lynch’s most (conventionally) satisfying picture, as it follows an old war vet, Alvin Straight (the sublime Richard Farnsworth), who’s weathered so much pain that he’s been able to put it all in perspective. In the typically tenacious tradition of Lynchian alter egos, Alvin defies his physical and economic limitations by mounting a riding mower to visit his ailing, estranged brother who lives hundreds of miles away. In several mesmerizing conversations, Alvin reveals the memories that have plagued him over the years, though Lynch utilizes a bare minimum of flashbacks, enabling the focus to remain on the hypnotic dialogue and peerless acting of Farnsworth. The actor’s death a year later made Alvin’s observations about mortality all the more poignant. It’s ultimately the destination at the end of Alvin’s road that makes “Story” infinitely preferable to “Highway” (which is merely an early sketch of Lynch’s later efforts), but the latter does include one scene that ranks alongside the director’s very best…

IV. Down the Rabbit Hole

While I consider 2001’s “Mulholland Dr.” to be the crowning masterpiece of Lynch’s career, I can easily see why many of the director’s die-hard fans regard “Inland Empire” as their treasured auteur’s magnum opus. It is easily his most experimental effort since “Eraserhead,” clocking in at three hours and shot on standard video cameras that allowed Lynch to fully indulge his most spontaneous instincts. The picture’s free-flowing collection of loosely intertwined scenes could’ve easily been dreamed up during one of Lynch’s transcendental meditation sessions, while using his previous feature as its starting point. Perhaps only the inventive, intuitive genius of Lynch could’ve taken the failed 1999 TV pilot for “Mulholland” and stitch the footage into a captivating, thrillingly cinematic dreamscape that rewards viewers on every subsequent viewing.

In the broadest possible sense, “Mulholland” and “Empire” are about blonde and bubbly actresses (played in towering performances by Naomi Watts and Laura Dern, respectively) whose understanding of reality and fiction becomes irrevocably blurred in that foreboding land of make-believe known as L.A. The desperation of aspiring stars vying for successful careers and stable romance is not lost on Lynch, who externalizes their inner demons with astonishing ingenuity. Since homelessness is a natural fear for any struggling artist, Lynch makes the presence of poverty hugely potent. It manifests itself as a fearsome phantom in “Mulholland,” and as a trio of bums in “Empire,” who deliver the picture’s most startling and moving dialogue. Though the structure of “Mulholland” arguably reveals itself upon closer inspection, “Empire” largely remains an elusive mystery. However, there’s no doubting Lynch’s infectious joy of creation, celebrated in an end credit roll visited by various fictional characters of “Empire” (and a few from the director’s previous films), who deliver a rousingly choreographed, lip-synched rendition of Nina Simone’s “Sinner Man.”

Even fragments of Lynch’s short films pop up in “Empire,” including footage from the director’s brooding sitcom satire, “Rabbits” (part one is below)…

“Empire” is also Lynch’s most fiercely independent work to date. Here’s priceless footage of the director marketing his film by dragging a cow through L.A….

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