On January 20, David Lynch, unquestionably the foremost surrealist artist of our times, turned 72. It is as good a time as any to take stock of his eclectic and wide-ranging oeuvre, which includes film, music, art, literature, photography and architecture.
Over the course of his career, Lynch has honed a uniquely surrealistic aesthetic, evoking dark fever dreams with oblique storylines and disturbed characters. In spite of taking many liberties with form and structure, he has enjoyed considerable mass acceptance, more so than any art house filmmaker of his era. So deeply personal and singular is his vision that the phrase “Lynchian” was coined simply to describe it.
His films take us deep beneath the quotidian surface of small-town America, a space he knows intimately, where sublime truths and dark fantasies play out, unhindered by the strictures of consensual reality. Early impressions and memories of an all-American childhood in rural Montana in the 1950s inform much of the artist’s work.
Many of his films start out with reassuring tropes but soon the cracks begin to appear. We are set adrift in a phantasmagoria of delirious sensations that assault the facade of normalcy. One of the key themes of his work is the usage of dreamlike imagery and structure within his works, related to the surrealist ethos of relying on the subconscious to provide visual drive.
“Ideas are like fish. If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper” says Lynch. “Down deep, the fish are more powerful and more pure. They’re huge and abstract. And they’re very beautiful.”
After a series of shorts at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art, David started work on Eraserhead in 1972. The black and white feature film took five years to complete, finally releasing in 1977. It tells the story of Henry Spencer (Jack Nance), who is left to care for his grossly deformed child in a desolate industrial landscape. Throughout the film, Spencer experiences dreams or hallucinations, featuring his child and the Lady in the Radiator. Partly inspired by his initial shock at the urban decay and violence in industrial Philadelphia, and expressing his nagging anxieties over having just become a father, the film resists analysis and description. Like much of his work, it has to be viewed in entirety and allowed to percolate into the consciousness through a process resembling osmosis.
“We lived cheap, but the city was full of fear,” Lynch said about moving to Philadelphia to pursue an artistic career.“A kid was shot to death down the street ... We were robbed twice, had windows shot out and a car stolen. The house was first broken into only three days after we moved in ... The feeling was so close to extreme danger, and the fear was so intense. There was violence and hate and filth. But the biggest influence in my whole life was that city.”
Predictably, Eraserhead had a mixed reception among establishment gatekeepers but quickly gained a large cult following, propelling Lynch to the forefront of avante garde filmmaking. The core team of actors and technicians who worked on the film, including cinematographer Frederick Elmes, sound designer Alan Splet, and actor Jack Nance, would continue working with him for years to come.
The film’s success brought Lynch to the attention of Mel Brooks who recruited him to helm The Elephant Man (1980), the beautiful sad story of Joseph Merrick, a grotesquely deformed man who performed in a Victorian freak show in late nineteenth-century London. Boasting a cast of luminaries such as John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins, Anne Bancroft, and John Gielgud, the film garnered several Academy Award nominations and launched the director into the mainstream.
His next film, Dune, an ambitious science fiction extravaganza adapted from Frank Herbert’s cult novel, was released in 1984 and turned out to be a commercial and critical disaster. It was also his first time working with Kyle MacLachlan, who would reappear in Blue Velvet, a revisionist noir masterpiece exploring the misogynistic violence simmering under the idealised veneer of small town life, starring Dennis Hopper, Isabella Rossellini and Dean Stockwell. Lynch also began his long and fruitful collaboration with composer Angelo Badalamenti, who would go on to create the iconic soundtrack for Twin Peaks.
In 1990, Lynch mounted his most commercially successful work, Twin Peaks, a surrealist soap opera broadcast on ABC in episodic form. The show, created by Mark Frost and Lynch, followed Federal Bureau of Investigation agent Dale Cooper (MacLachlan) as he attempted to solve the murder of homecoming queen Laura Palmer in the fictional town of Twin Peaks, Washington. On the surface it resembles detective fiction, but its uncanny tone, supernatural elements, and eccentric characters draw on and subvert American soap opera and horror tropes.
Twin Peaks was followed by a 1992 feature film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. It was written as a prequel to the television series and savaged by critics, but still enjoys a cult following, like all of Lynch’s work. A limited series, Twin Peaks: The Return, premiered on Showtime in 2017. Many of the original cast members, including MacLachlan, returned for the reprise.
During this prolific period, Lynch was able to display his prodigious capacity to function on different levels as an artist, a talent that would resurface much later in life, when most artists tend to regress into more formulaic and conservative fare. The musical/performance piece Industrial Symphony No. 1, which Lynch had staged with Angelo Badalamenti at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in 1990, spawned the album Floating into the Night, and five one-man exhibitions between 1989 and 1991 highlighted Lynch’s roots in fine art and painting.
“All my paintings are organic, violent comedies” he says about his first love. “They have to be violently done and primitive and crude, and to achieve that I try to let nature paint more than I paint.”
After Twin Peaks, Lynch directed the hallucinatory road movie Wild at Heart, based on Barry Gifford’s novel of the same name, which eventually won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Both the book and the film revolve around Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) and Lula Pace Fortune (Laura Dern), a young couple from Cape Fear, North Carolina, who go on the run from her domineering mother and the gangsters she hires to kill Sailor. The film received mixed reviews from critics and audiences, loved and hated in equal measure.”
“Perhaps the major problem is that despite Cage and Dern’s best efforts, Lynch is ultimately interested only in iconography, not characters at all,” wrote Jonathan Rosenbaum in Sight and Sound. “When it comes to images of evil, corruption, derangement, raw passion and mutilation (roughly in that order), Wild at Heart is a veritable cornucopia.”
After a couple of ill-fated television projects, Lynch once again collaborated with Barry Gifford on the“21st Century Noir Horror Film”, Lost Highway (1997). It was his first film that showed the world, not through the eyes of an innocent, but through the eyes of Fred (Bill Pullman), a paranoid misogynist who murders his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette) in a fit of jealous rage. Projecting his worst fears, Fred reimagines both himself and his wife in an alternative reality, a delusion that tragically bleeds into real life.
Following The Straight Story, which, true to its name, was a straightforward, sentimental road trip undertaken by a man across the American hinterland to reconcile with his estranged brother, Lynch attempted a return to television with a series about the dark underbelly of Hollywood culture. The project was nixed by TV executives, leading him to rework the material for the big screen. The superlative Mulholland Drive, widely considered the quintessential Lynch film, was released in 2001, winning him the best director at Cannes and another Academy Award nomination.
Similar on some level to Lost Highway, the non-linear narrative of Mulholland Drive combines actual events unfolding in the life of struggling actress Diane (Naomi Watts) and her idealised interpretation of events. It exposes the hollowness of patriarchal Hollywood culture where everybody has an ulterior motive, human beings are simply moved around like furniture or traded like currency, and anything that evokes truth or beauty is just a mirage that will eventually fade away.
Many of Lynch’s female characters are featured in “split” roles, having multiple, fractured identities. The motif was first seen in Twin Peaks where Sheryl Lee was cast as both Laura Palmer and her cousin Maddy Ferguson. In Lost Highway, Patricia Arquette plays both Renee Madison and Alice Wakefield, while in Mulholland Drive Naomi Watts plays Diane Selwyn/Betty Elms and Laura Harring plays Camilla Rhodes/Rita and in Inland Empire Laura Dern plays Nikki Grace/Susan Blue. The director’s propensity for alternative realities and fragmented timelines may echo and/or reference the many worlds interpretation of quantum physics and perhaps Lynch’s broader interest in quantum theory.
Following Mulholland Drive, Lynch made the highly experimental three-hour opus Inland Empire. The meandering, non-narrative feature, put together over several years using a light, mobile video camera and a minimal crew, left critics divided but delighted long time Lynch adherents. He also made his public debut as a singer on two songs he composed for the film, Ghost of Love and Walkin’ on the Sky.
Refusing to compromise his artistic integrity, David continues to express himself across multiple platforms. A number of never-seen-before digital shorts were made available to subscribers on his exclusive website. He released two solo music albums – Crazy Clown Time (2011) and The Big Dream (2013) – and designed a nightclub, Silencio, inspired by Mulholland Drive, that opened in Paris in 2011. He also launched the David Lynch Foundation to fund the teaching of Transcendental Meditation and wrote two books – Images and Catching the Big Fish – in addition to directing several music videos and advertisements.
The maestro’s latest endeavour is the Festival of Disruption, held over a weekend in Los Angeles, evoking a “mysterious and beautiful world” featuring music, art, film and creativity, with artists and performers handpicked by Lynch. The festival takes its name from a quote attributed to Mahesh Yogi who said, “Life is a festival of disruption,” a quote that aptly sums up David Lynch’s life and work.