David Lynch: The career of an eccentric master of cinematic surrealism
“I hate slick and pretty things. I prefer mistakes and accidents. Which is why I like things like cuts and bruises – they’re like little flowers.” – David Lynch
David Lynch is a man of many talents. Apart from being one of the most influential filmmakers of the last century, he is a writer, painter, musician, sound designer, actor, singer and photographer. Known for his challenging masterpieces like Eraserhead and Mulholland Drive among others, Lynch’s brand of surrealism broke into the mainstream consciousness and led to him being called the “first popular surrealist” by Pauline Kael. Even after all these years, Lynch’s filmography remains a vital part of cinematic history and is evidence of The Guardian’s 2007 claim that he is “the most important filmmaker of the current era”. On his 75th birthday, we take a look at the evolution of David Lynch’s artistic vision over the course of his eventful life as a tribute to one of the greatest filmmakers of all time.
Born in Montana on January 20, 1946, Lynch was raised a Presbyterian and had a pretty privileged childhood. His father worked as a research scientist for the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) while his mother was an English language tutor. Because of his father’s position, the family moved around a lot and Lynch adapted to the changing environments with relative ease. Although he had no problems making friends in school, Lynch remembers thinking that school was an unnecessary component of childhood which urged students to conform rather than encouraging freedom of thought. From a very early age, he was drawn towards things that would shape his artistic vision as an adult:
“My childhood was elegant homes, tree-lined streets, the milkman, building backyard forts, droning aeroplanes, blue skies, picket fences, green grass, cherry trees. Middle America as it’s supposed to be. But on the cherry tree there’s this pitch oozing out – some black, some yellow, and millions of red ants crawling all over it. I discovered that if one looks a little closer at this beautiful world, there are always red ants underneath. Because I grew up in a perfect world, other things were a contrast.”
The dark underbelly of the seemingly perfect world formed the driving force behind Lynch’s powerful investigations, evident in many of his films like the brilliant 1986 effort Blue Velvet. Lynch was never an exceptionally given student, but he found comfort in painting and wanted to pursue it as a career. He enrolled in an art school in Washington, D.C., eventually transferring to the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, where he shared a room with musician Peter Wolf. However, Lynch’s contempt for institutional knowledge contributed to his decision to drop out after a year and explore Europe for three years with Jack Fisk. They returned after two weeks because the Austrian expressionist painter, Oskar Kokoschka, under whom they had hoped they would be able to train, was not available to take them under his tutelage.
After returning to the U.S., Lynch enrolled for a course at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and felt that it was a much better place than his previous schools because the environment was conducive to creative endeavours. During this period, he met his first wife, Peggy Reavey, and lived with his family in a Philadelphia neighbourhood with a high crime rate. This period in his life would go on to shape his artistic sensibilities more than any other, opening his eyes to the violence and the horror of the world. “We lived cheap, but the city was full of fear. A kid was shot to death down the street,” Lynch recalled. “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.” In order to support his family, Lynch worked as an engraving printer while working on his first short films at the Academy. He was initially attracted to the cinematic medium because he wanted to see his paintings in motion, hoping he would be able to realise this dream by working on animation projects.
When this never materialised, Lynch decided to buy the cheapest 16mm camera he could lay his hands on and spent $150 of his own money to finance his first short film: Six Men Getting Sick (Six Times) which he made in 1967). Describing it as “57 seconds of growth and fire, and three seconds of vomit,” the experimental short film went on to share the first prize with another entry at the Academy’s annual exhibit. It had such an impact on his schoolmate, H. Barton Wasserman, that he offered Lynch $1000 to make a film installation in his home. Even though his first attempt was unsuccessful, Lynch ended up using whatever money was left to make four-minute short The Alphabet (1968) which experimented with animation and live-action. It starred as his wife as a mysterious character who read the alphabet out loud to pictures of horses before haemorrhaging all over the bed. Lynch used The Alphabet to apply for a grant at the newly founded American Film Institute, requesting $7,200 for a new short film titled The Grandmother which would focus on the story of a lonely boy who plants a seed so that a grandmother would grow out of it and care for him. All his rare, early short films are included in a 2002 DVD collection called The Short Films of David Lynch.
The burgeoning filmmaker then moved to Los Angeles in 1971, choosing to study at the AFI conservatory where he began work on a project called Gardenback but was disrupted by the chaotic nature of the place and even considered leaving. However, Lynch was urged by the dean to stay because he was one of their finest students. He stayed and started creating a new project called Eraserhead, an iconic masterpiece which would go on to be one of the crowning jewels in the impressive oeuvre of American independent films. Despite inadequate funds and personal turmoil, Lynch persevered and completed his brilliant feature film debut by working as a paperboy and taking a loan from his father. Eraserhead is right up there with the most powerful and striking films of the last century, envisioning an industrial wasteland where anxieties and fears swirl on the screen in breathtaking beauty. The enigmatic work of art did not make an impact immediately, but its enormous artistic credibility was eventually noticed when the film started being screened on the midnight movie underground circuit. Eraserhead was a forceful statement by an incredibly talented filmmaker who was breaking onto the scene, proving that he had something worth saying in a way that was unlike anything else.
Lynch wanted to move on to an unfinished project called Ronnie Rocket, but he realised that taking on a film like The Elephant Man would be a more lucrative prospect for potential producers. Many consider this to be Lynch’s greatest triumph, a historical drama which uses the concept of the grotesque to investigate what it means to be a human. The film tells the story of a 19th century Londoner, John Merrick, (played by John Hurt) who is physically disfigured, asking questions about our prejudices and disgust of the “Uncanny Other”. Starring big names like Hurt, Anne Bancroft and Anthony Hopkins, The Elephant Man was a major commercial and critical success and went on to be nominated for eight Academy Awards. Lynch would follow the success of The Elephant Man with what would be the biggest disappointment in his stellar career, adapting Frank Herbert’s science fiction novel Dune for the big screen. However, Lynch’s fast rise to acclaim hit a major bump in the road and his sci-fi effort was a critical and box-office failure, only recovering $30 million of the $40 million budget. Lynch admitted that the pressure of the producers and contractual obligations pushed him into a corner, “I started selling out on Dune. Looking back, it’s no one’s fault but my own,” he said. “I probably shouldn’t have done that picture, but I saw tons and tons of possibilities for things I loved, and this was the structure to do them in.”
In what was an extremely oscillatory period, Lynch came back with one of the best films he has ever made. A surreal 1986 drama which asks philosophical questions about life and death through psychosexual themes, Blue Velvet is a stunning masterpiece, but it generated controversy when it was first released because of the violent treatment of Isabella Rossellini’s character. However, it was this controversy that introduced the film to mainstream audiences and later critical evaluations proved that Lynch was in the right all along. Blue Velvet became a cult-classic and received several accolades from some of the foremost critics’ circles in the country. What followed was probably the most successful time in his career, a period where he created the finest example of cinematic surrealism on television: the iconic series Twin Peaks. He also released the crime romance Wild at Heart, starring Nicolas Cage and Laura Dern, which won the Palme d’Or. Lynch’s subsequent films like Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me and Lost Highway would be met with mixed reviews and greater confusion as he travelled further and further into the core of surrealism, experimenting more fiercely with the normative conventions of storytelling. As if to answer the criticisms about his artistic vision, he worked on his most “normal” film in 1999 when he made a touching road film called The Straight Story which was also a masterpiece but in a completely different way.
Staying faithful to his violent swings from one end of the spectrum to the other, Lynch followed up with his magnum opus: the 2001 surrealist erotic psychological thriller Mulholland Drive. Starring Naomi Watts in her breakthrough role, the disturbing Hollywood horror film is considered to be one of the best films of the 21st century – and for good reason. It creates a labyrinth of dark fears and desires for the viewers to wade through until they come face to face with their own individual insecurities. “One night, I sat down, the ideas came in, and it was a most beautiful experience,” Lynch once commented on the film’s creation. “Everything was seen from a different angle … Now, looking back, I see that [the film] always wanted to be this way. It just took this strange beginning to cause it to be what it is.” Churning out one non-linear film after another, Lynch worked on Inland Empire in 2006 while also working on short films which he released online. Towards the end of this period, he collaborated with Werner Herzog in Herzog’s 2009 film My Son, My Son, What Have Ye Done? and even tried making a documentary on the creator of Transcendental Meditation, Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, but the plans never saw the light of the day.
The most notable, relatively recent project that Lynch undertook was the 2015 return to Twin Peaks with a nine-episode season. A welcome addition for fans of the original series, many believed that this would be Lynch’s farewell to the world of cinema, but he did not give a definite answer: “I did not say I quit cinema, simply that nobody knows what the future holds.” He even mentioned the possibility of another season, stating that it would not air before 2021 even if it did happen. During the COVID-19 pandemic, Lynch came back and delighted audiences with his eccentric weather reports and two new series: What is David Lynch Working on Today? and Today’s Number is…, where he chooses random numbers from a jar. The veteran filmmaker is set to return with a new Netflix project whose production will start in May of this year. With the working titles of Wisteria and Unrecorded Night, Lynch is set to write and direct 13 episodes with an $85 million budget at his disposal. This might just be the biggest project Lynch has taken on in decades, raising the inevitable question: “Has David Lynch still got it?”