Throwback Thursday: TL;DR? David Lynch Is a Surrealistic Genius

Throwback Thursday examines films from the past—“classic” films that might not be in the current cultural zeitgeist but can still be important, interesting, fun, or all of the above.

This is officially my 52nd weekly column. I can’t believe I’ve gotten to share so many wonderful films, and it’s surprising to me that I haven’t even touched on any films by one of my favorite directors. Today, which happens to be one day after Twin Peaks Day—the date Agent Dale Cooper arrived in the not-so-sleepy fictional town in David Lynch’s cult series—I’m going to rectify that in one long marathon session focusing on Lynch’s wonderfully surreal filmography.

The director has a total of 10 feature-length films in his oeuvre. That doesn’t count his television work, as a creator (Twin Peaks, On the Air), as a director (the same), or as an actor (Twin Peaks, The Cleveland Show, Louie). Nor does it take into account his many short films, music videos, or even his artwork, coffee, or public speaking on transcendental meditation. He’s a modern-day Renaissance man with a twist. He likes to show the dark side of society, but with a surreal slant that also exposes the beauty in the darkness. Most of his films have common themes of duality and/or dreams. Throw weird situations at a character in a Lynch film and they will react naturally—it’s the essence of dream logic. Even if you can’t explain it, it just makes sense.

And now, on to the 10 magnificent films, in order of my favorites . That doesn’t mean that the lower films don’t have good or great moments; I just feel stronger about some of the films higher up on the list.

10. Inland Empire (2006)

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Inland Empire lobby display poster

Lynch’s last full-length film was released a decade ago. Shot on digital video, it incorporates quite a few of his standard themes. Laura Dern plays actress Nikki Grace, who is hired to play a character named Sue Blue in a film. Dern has a natural quality about her, but this is the first Lynch film for which there wasn’t a finished script—the director kept writing pages day to day, hoping it would take him and the characters somewhere. It’s definitely his most surreal and experimental film since Eraserhead (which I’ll talk about next) in regard to plot, character, and imagery. There is a certain character duality, but the plot is best taken as a spiderweb, with some strands connecting and others going nowhere, eventually leading to a whole film. This is a film whose plot is almost incidental to everything else going on and allows the viewer a lot of leeway to determine what the plot actually is.

The digital video gives the film an immediacy that most of his other films don’t have, but it loses some of the otherworldly or ethereal quality of his best works. Not the easiest or accessible work, but definitely worth pursuing if you’ve seen his other films. With an over three-hour running time it’s not for the faint of heart, or short of attention span, but there are a lot of great moments that you can and will ruminate on.

9. Eraserhead (1977)

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Eraserhead box art

The one that started it all. This film took over three years to shoot due to financial limitations; Jack Nance, who was made famous by his role as Henry Spencer in the film, once famously said that due to the shooting schedule, in a scene he walked into a doorway one day and walked out three years later.

Eraserhead started Lynch off on the duality of industrialization and nature, and the film has some gorgeous industrial settings mixing with the lifeblood of the earth. The loose nature of the plot has Henry dealing with his girlfriend, Mary X (Charlotte Stewart), and the child who has come into their life. There are some great scenes involving a family dinner, a lady in a radiator (no, seriously), and a baby that is the stuff of nightmares.

The film reflects Lynch’s fatherhood and recoiling from the responsibilities that entailed. Definitely a must-see film if you like Lynch, but it is an art-house film on a low budget.

Now is a good time to bring up Lynch’s focus on sound design. Even on a low budget, he is an incredibly meticulous sound designer and focuses on that task for all of his films. In Eraserhead, listen to the aural landscape of the film—everything from the baby’s mewling to the omnipresent hissing of the dinner scene. These are legitimate choices that have been made and ratchet up the unease and tension to an incredible level. Film is a visual medium, but without Lynch’s aural work these films wouldn’t be the same.

8. The Elephant Man (1980)

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Elephant Man theatrical poster

The Elephant Man was Lynch’s first Hollywood film—produced, surprisingly, by Mel Brooks (who wanted to be kept off credits so people wouldn’t think it was a comedy). The plot is much more linear than Lynch’s other works and follows John Hurt as the malformed John Merrick and his interactions with the doctor Frederick Treves (played by a wonderfully engaging Anthony Hopkins) in Victorian London.

The film is shot in beautiful black and white, which not only adds to the atmosphere of the characters but showcases the industrial backdrop of London. Even though Lynch came into the film as a director for hire, the argument could be made that there is a certain duality between Treves and Merrick, playing the two-sides-of-the-same-coin roles that you can see in his other works. I can’t overstate how magnificent Hurt’s portrayal is, and it’s a master class in how to convey emotion through pounds of makeup. Probably one of Lynch’s most accessible films for a neophyte, and it’s no coincidence that it was nominated for eight Academy Awards.

7. Lost Highway (1997)

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Lost Highway European theatrical poster

Playing into Lynch’s theme of duality but this time focusing on fugue states as well. Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) is convicted of killing his wife, Renee (Patricia Arquette). While in prison, he changes into Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), who proceeds to fall in love with Alice Wakefield (also played by Arquette). The film can be viewed on multiple levels as something that actually happens or as one of the characters being a psychogenic fugue of the other.

There’s definitely some disturbing imagery. Robert Blake (in his final film role) plays a mysterious man who has a confrontation with Fred that will have the hackles on your neck standing up. There is also a slightly humorous but morbid scene involving Robert Loggia and road rage that we’ve probably all wanted to do at some point. Lost Highway is also notable for being the final film of Richard Pryor and Jack Nance. (If you get a chance, I would recommend the documentary I Don’t Know Jack, which was released in 2002 as a tribute to Nance and his final days.)

Lost Highway is a solid film with some great ideas, but the duality theme congeals a lot better in Lynch’s later film Mulholland Drive.

6. The Straight Story (1991)

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The Straight Story German theatrical poster

Yes, it’s true: a G-rated Lynch film. The Straight Story is a slice-of-life film based on the true story of Alvin Straight, an elderly World War II veteran who, due to his health, undertakes a 240-mile journey on a John Deere lawnmower to see his brother. A sweet film starring the great character actor Richard Farnsworth in his final role, this road trip-movie has a lot to be learned about human perseverance. I consider it Lynch’s earthiest film. It doesn’t have as much surrealistic imagery, but it still has quite a bit of symbolism. The film moves as slowly as the tractor, but just because it’s slow doesn’t mean there’s not intent or value in the journey. When the film is over you wish you could spend more time with Alvin, hear more of his stories, and peel more layers back on his life. A beautiful film on the human condition.

5. Blue Velvet (1986)

After the failure of Dune (more on that below), Lynch went back to his “roots” and focused his sights on small-town America and the evil that lurks beneath the surface—a theme he would address again with Mark Frost in the throwback mystery Twin Peaks. Lynch loves to focus on the beauty of evil, and nowhere is this more apparent than in one of his great screen villains: Frank Booth. Dennis Hopper lives and breathes this character, and he is one of the scariest people you will ever meet on screen, but even when you know all of his depravity you can’t not look. An amazing performance in a film filled with wonderfully off-kilter characters that still feel believable.

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Blue Velvet theatrical poster

When Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) randomly finds an ear in a field, he decides to piece together the mystery and it leads him down the proverbial rabbit hole—very Alice in Wonderland. With the help of the plucky Sandy (Laura Dern) he becomes enmeshed in the lives of Frank Booth and the femme fatale Dorothy Vallens (a stunning Isabella Rossellini).

This is probably the quintessential Lynch film. It pulls all these disparate characters together and watches to see what happens—all with a gorgeous palette, standard Lynch themes and imagery, and captivating characters.

4. Wild at Heart (1990)

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Wild at Heart theatrical poster

If Blue Velvet is Lynch’s take on Alice in Wonderland, then Wild at Heart is his version of The Wizard of Oz, with Nicolas Cage filling in for the role of Dorothy. Sailor (Cage) and Lula (Lynch regular Laura Dern) try to escape her mother (Diane Ladd) by getting to California and avoiding the hit man who is hot on their trail.

I’m usually not a fan of Cage. He has a known tendency to overact, but in this film it works and fits in with the other characters. I have a friend who theorizes that the worst actor in the world always has one part that they were made to play. I believe this is Cage’s.

The sheen of evil just below the surface is strong with this film as well, and we’re taken along on this road trip that isn’t quite the Yellow Brick Road that we are used to. Besides Lynch’s standard imagery, this film really wants to focus on love conquering all. I think Blue Velvet is a stronger film, but there’s something about this one that has always been able to draw me in more.

3. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)

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Fire Walk with Me theatrical poster

Critically panned when it was first released, this film has gained in stature over the years. I think the hardest thing it had going for it initially was that it wasn’t the TV show. After Twin Peaks was cancelled, it left fans with so many unanswered questions that they went into the film with high expectations of getting them answered. Alas for those folks, Lynch didn’t care about that. Without trying to give too much away from the 25-year-old TV series—seriously, just go watch it now before it comes back next year—the film focuses on the last week of the life of Laura Palmer (an amazing Sheryl Lee).

It’s a prequel with a twist. We first spend some amazingly surreal time with Chet Desmond (Chris Isaak) and Sam Stanley (Kiefer Sutherland), FBI agents who are investigating a murder that ties into the mythology of the TV show. We are then transported to FBI headquarters, where we get a brief visit from Special Agent Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan, reprising his role) and a missing agent Phillip Jeffries (an otherworldly David Bowie—is there any other kind?) before being taken to the meat and potatoes of the story and Laura’s life.

It’s a dark film. I would say it is probably Lynch’s darkest, though there is a ray of hope. It deals with some heavy real-life material in regards to child sexual abuse, which was present in the series, but the series didn’t spend two hours focusing on it at one time. Unbeknownst to me, I shared this film with a friend who, I later found out, had been abused as a child. She told me that, minus all the surrealism, it was the most realistic film she had seen dealing with sexual abuse—how we can make excuses for the horrible acts of loved ones and create a completely different world in our minds. It’s a tragedy that there are people out there who are supposed to be our protectors and end up betraying that trust and becoming a destroyer.

It’s easy to see why the film failed initially: not enough MacLachlan, and not enough of the quirky humor of the TV show. However, I stand by it as a surrealistic masterpiece that deals with a gross subject matter. It’s a powerful film that I would rank as one of Lynch’s best.

For an added bonus, the complete Blu-ray box set of the series and film includes almost 45 minutes of cut scenes from Fire Walk with Me. This adds the humor that was missing from the final cut but would have definitely ruined the pacing of the film and isn’t needed.

2. Dune (1984)

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Dune theatrical poster

I admit, this movie is a guilty pleasure of mine. There’s so much that doesn’t work with it, but I still love it so much. This was actually the first Lynch film I saw; having read the Dune series by Frank Herbert in high school, I found out that a critically panned film version had been made, so I searched it out at the video store. (Yes, there were those back in the day.) I watched it and fell in love with it.

How do you take a book that has so much interior monologue and not much exterior dialogue and translate that into a film? Lynch chose to deal with those monologues by using them as voice-overs. It’s a trick that doesn’t quite work for a whole film but is interesting in the audacity Lynch even trying it (and getting the producers to agree).

The plot of Dune is hard to summarize, but I’ll try to do it in one sentence: a young Paul Atreides (MacLachlan in his first partnership with Lynch) embarks on a journey to restore a desert planet to its full abilities. That leaves a lot of things out. Picture Game of Thrones set in a sci-fi world with all the political machinations of Westeros but giant sand worms and spaceships instead of dragons. There’s a lot of streamlining of plot points and an interesting idea in voice guns that fit into the themes of the film that aren’t prevalent in the book series. It’s a fun idea that helps to focus some of the books tangents.

It’s amazing and impressive to see what the film team was able to do with a $40 million budget in terms of the special effects and scenic design, and I could recommend the film on that point alone. It’s a gorgeous film with pre-CGI special effects. Dune is Lynch’s only foray into sci fi, and with all the problems he had in its production and editing, I wouldn’t expect him to go back anytime soon. If you’re a sci-fi fan—and you’re reading this on a site called Twin Cities Geek, so I would assume there’s a good chance you are—I would recommend checking it out, but keep in mind that it’s a near miss.

If you watch the movie and feel like you’re missing something, definitely read the books. I also recommend the documentary Jodorowsky’s Dune, which follows the missteps of Alejandro Jodorowsky trying to get his version of the film made before it fell into the hands of Lynch.

1. Mulholland Drive (2001)

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Mulholland Drive theatrical poster

Finally, we come to my favorite David Lynch film. A nightmarish fantasia of a fever dream. A young would-be actress, Betty (Naomi Watts), comes to Hollywood to seek her fortune and finds an amnesiac woman in her bathroom. Betty and “Rita” (Laura Harring) team up to piece together what happened. But that’s not really what the film is about.

Lynch originally shot most of the film as a TV series pilot. When it wasn’t picked up, he decided to go back, film additional scenes, and turn it into a feature film. This is another story for which there are a lot of theories about what is real and what isn’t, and I love the fact that there are so many different interpretations.

What sells the film, though, and makes it all work is the acting of Watts and Harring. They are electric together and show the full range of their chops in this film. When we first meet Betty we think there’s no way this character is for real, but there is a pivotal scene involving an audition that cements Watts as an amazing actress and brings Betty to full life. When rewatching the film you pick up on so much more of the character and what Watts was doing with her. Harring is similarly engaging as the modified femme fatale, and it’s no surprise that she takes her name from a poster of Gilda starring Rita Hayworth.

The less said about the plot the better, since it is technically a mystery, but there are dreams, there are signs, and there is some amazing imagery. If you don’t tear up during the scene at Club Silencio, then maybe we can’t be friends.

Mulholland Drive brings a lot of recurring themes into focus. It’s everything Lost Highway was trying to accomplish with duality, mixed with the heart of The Straight Story, the darkness beneath the surface of Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart, and the fear of humanity in Eraserhead, Elephant Man, and Fire Walk with Me. Like all of Lynch’s films, it will be one that stays with you and will constantly reexamine.

If you’ve never seen one of his films, hopefully this quick glance into each of them will lead you to your perfect jumping-on point. If you have, then maybe a stray comment here has provided some insight into the mind and works of one of our greatest living directors . . . David Lynch.

Most of these films can be found on both Blu-ray and DVD, with a couple of exceptions: Lost Highway has never been released on Blu-ray, and Fire Walk with Me is only on Blu in the Twin Peaks box set. Netflix and other streaming offerings change frequently, so keep an eye out. Feel free to discuss further in the comments below; just keep it respectful.

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