Few filmmakers have directed a cult classic and a Best Picture nominee within their first two films. Fewer still have created a hit television series, followed by a Palme D’Or nominated prequel film and a well-received belated sequel series. Add to that a stick figure web series, a Wizard of Oz homage starring Nick Cage and a daily Youtube weather report, and David Lynch has just about the most interesting career of anyone in Hollywood. This makes him a hero for cinephiles, TV lovers and weirdos. As someone who is all three of those, the announcement of a David Lynch series at the Cornell Cinema was enough to make me giddy. But who is David Lynch, why is he so beloved and where can the less weird among us get started with his work?
A Montana native, Lynch brings his folksy midwestern accent and demeanor to interviews, bit roles and YouTube Clips. Yet, this happy-go-lucky folksiness doesn’t stretch so far as his filmography. Instead, his career delves into genre-bending fare that features elements of horror, thriller and pessimistic drama, evoking bizarro anxieties that seem far from the easygoing nature of the artist. Thus lies the inherent contradiction in Lynch and his work; simultaneous with the fearful imagery is a nearly funny uncanny valley quality of dialogue and events.
Starting as a visual artist, Lynch’s feature debut was Eraserhead, in which stark black-and-white cinematography is juxtaposed with absurd imagery and downright torturous sound design. Lynch reflects on fatherhood, with the crazy-haired protagonist forced to care for a child after he’s left by his girlfriend, then being confronted by such spectyrs as The Woman in the Radiator and The Man in the Planet. The child in question? A deformed creation whose special effects have to this day remained under wraps by Lynch, with rumors ranging from prosthetics to a dead lamb fetus. Ultimately Eraserhead has airs of accessibility —its 90 minute runtime first and foremost — but it’s a challenging film, and watchers should be warned that trying to dissect its bizzarities will prove impossible. It’s absolutely a fun horror movie to see with a crowd, but no one should go expecting a conventional plot, or characters, or scares, even by Lynch’s standards.
Following Eraserhead’s moderate cult success, Lynch was commissioned for an Academy recognized turn in The Elephant Man before working on the commiserate failure of the original Dune film (not to be confused with the 2021 remake). After declining another franchise offer from George Lucas to direct Return of the Jedi (what a bizarre experience that would have been), Lynch reenlisted Dune star Kyle McLaughlin and actress Laura Dern to produce Blue Velvet.
Here lies a gem — and the best entry point to Lynch’s filmography. In Blue Velvet, a college student returning to a small town discovers a severed ear, prompting an investigation, adventure and coming-of-age for its characters, and the town at large. It’s hard to endorse this strongly enough: the film is fantastic. With beautiful surrealist imagery, Lynch renders this dark picture of suburbia that hinges horror on humor and rings as true now as it did in the nostalgic 50s suburbia where it was set and Reagan-era America where it was made.
It has, rest assured, a straightforward plot, and its dreamlike elements work more to serve the brilliant tone than they do to confuse audiences. Blue Velvet is at least partially fun and legitimately thrilling and scary in a different way from a traditional slasher or creature feature. The film is absolutely mind-blowing, and a worthwhile watch in a theater, though it can also be enjoyed on streaming. That said, I do have to qualify my recommendation with the warning that the filmcontains graphic content, including sexual assault and violence; viewers should be warned that this is both horrifyingly depicted and controversial, having produced scholarly defenders and prosecutors alike.
Lynch’s next major project was the Twin Peaks T.V. Series and prequel film, both excellent in their own right, and absent from the Cornell Cinema’s series, though worth a watch on streaming.
The Cinema catches up with Lynch in 1997, with Lost Highway, a jazz and heavy metal soaked neo-noir dreamscape that both refuses easy answers and embraces confused fright. In many ways, it is the purest of Lynch’s visions, both for better and worse. It really does feel like a dream in a way I’ve never seen captured on screen, but that also lends to logical inconsistencies that may prove difficult to an unwitting viewer. It can be a rewarding watch for anyone, but it might be best to prepare yourself for a film that switches the protagonist’s actor halfway through, all while recasting its female lead as a new character entirely.
Inland Empire, the last in the series, is easily the wildest yet, and would provide perhaps the greatest challenge for any non-Lynch fan in attempting to delve into the filmography. Running three hours long and shot on digital video (remember that ugly camcorder footage that dominates all your childhood home movies), Empire has virtually no digestible plot, and by Lynch’s own admission was constructed of scenes made by playing with the camcorder with little planning or scripting. There’s something incredible to be had here, as there is with everything Lynch, but if he’s not for everyone, then Inland Empire is for microscopically fewer people.
David Lynch is one of my favorite filmmakers, and though he can certainly be bizarre and contradictory, his films are also brilliant meshes of tone. If you come to them with no expectations or as an eager recipient, there’s no limit to the enjoyment and revelation you can get out of them. I can’t blame anyone for sticking with less unabashedly strange fare, but if you’re looking for something different, then you need look no further than the excellent Cornell Cinema this month.
Max Fattal is a sophomore in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. They can be reached at [email protected].