Lynch, 64, made his mark in 1976 with Eraserhead, a gritty, grainy independent feature about a man struggling to stay together amidst an industrial world and a newly born mutant baby. Eraserhead is an experimental American New Wave picture, a surreal story which explores ideas more than anything. There are awkward sexual examinations, nightmarish landscapes, and a definite hint at what was to come from Lynch. It showed that Lynch had a keen eye for style, and an unblinking eye that was not afraid to show darker parts of the mind.
Four years later, Lynch directed a fairly ordinary narrative picture, The Elephant Man, starring John Hurt as John Merrick, a grotesquely deformed man, and Anthony Hopkins as Treves, a sympathetic doctor. The picture is a triumph as a biopic, and signaled that while Lynch could explore nightmares and the surreal, he could also tell a compelling human story. Four years later, Lynch dropped a bomb called Dune, an adaptation of a boring sci-fi story featuring Sting that is Lynch’s very own Waterworld. But he recovered quickly, directing Blue Velvet two years later. And this… is where things get weird.
Blue Velvet was a critical success, and Lynch nabbed his first Best Director nomination. Blue Velvet tells, basically, a story about the underbelly of American suburbia, the darker corners of middle America. It stars Kyle MacLachlan as Jeffrey, a naïve young man who, while going to visit his ailing grandfather one day, discovers a human ear in a field. The ear leads to a mystery that he tries to unravel with Sandy, played by longtime Lynch collaborator Laura Dern, which leads them into the seedy world of a man named Frank Booth – a nitrous-sniffing, maniacal Dennis Hopper – and a woman whom he keeps for sexual pleasure, played by Isabella Rossellini. Blue Velvet was that good kind of controversial, a picture that created a firestorm and was recognized as a modern classic.
I must be missing something.
I have tried to sit and watch Blue Velvet more than once, more than twice for that matter, and I simply cannot make it through. I get it and everything; suburbia is not all sunny days and roses, and Lynch does some very interesting things with his camera early on. There is the opening shot of a sunny suburban neighborhood: red fire trucks, white picked fences, an older man watering his yard with a smile. But the man has hat appears to be a heart attack, and the glossy world is broken. And then Lynch drops his camera below the perfectly-manicured grass to show the insects, the monstrous bugs creeping and crawling; an obvious, but interesting and effective metaphor. It’s downhill from here.
Once Jeffrey and Sandy delve into Frank Booth’s underworld, the film not only gets very odd – Frank’s collection of buddies are strange to say the least – but it gets irritating as well. Hopper as Frank is loud, uncontrolled, obnoxious. He huffs nitrous and forces Isabella Rosselini to do sexual favors for him. The whole idea is compelling, and it has most assuredly been reproduced over the years, but Lynch takes things over the line not in interesting ways, just in excessive ways. The darkness and the contrast of suburbia begin as interesting, but become monotonous and rather dull. I get it, I just don’t like it.
Following Blue Velvet, Lynch did some films – all the while heading up his most controversial Twin Peaks TV series – that could be considered “minor Lynch.” There was Wild at Heart, a road movie again with Dern and Nic Cage as Sailor, an obsessed Elvis fanatic (big stretch) with a violent streak. Confusing, overly-violent, and nihilistic, Lynch fooled with the tone of Wild at Heart, teetering back and forth between ultra-violence and strange humor that handcuffs the focus. Seven years later Lynch’s next feature was Lost Highway, a nightmarish exploration of… something. Starring Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette, the first act of Lost Highway is brilliant, beyond creepy, thanks in no small part to Robert Blake as a disturbing prophet. But once Pullman’s character is convicted of murder, put in a cell, and transforms inexplicably into another person, therein being released into what appears to be an entirely different movie starring Robert Loggia, I was out. I understand that Lost Highway takes on a dream after Pullman is sent away, but the entire abandonment of the first act is never explained beyond a cheap Newhart fallback.
Lost Highway was where Lynch began to explore transcendental meditation in his own life, an intense meditation technique that apparently explores the capacity of the mind, and you can see the influence in his work. His next picture, Mulholland Drive, is what many cite as his masterpiece, and here is where I reach a crossroads with Lynch’s career.
I saw Mulholland Drive in the theater, and I saw it once more at home, and I didn’t like it. Not that I didn’t get it, I thought I did, but I simply didn’t think it was very good. Characters switch roles, things are left unexplained, and Naomi Watts grandparents turn into little tiny, shrill people who crawl under her door and cause her to shoot herself and disappear into a puff of smoke. Read that last sentence out loud and try not to sound crazy by the end of it.
Mulholland Dr. earned Lynch his third Best Director nomination and was lauded as a brilliant picture. I thought I understood it, and I struggled over the narrative for weeks after seeing it in the theater, but perhaps I was wrong. Apparently, after reading about it periodically over the last decade, I may have missed the whole aim of the picture, and I won’t go into details as I plan on looking back at Mulholland Dr. for a new segment on the site. Perhaps my mind will change with the new outlook and the new information I have collected. One thing I am certain I am not missing is the strange hatred and disdain for Lynch’s next “wide” release, a film that I cannot pass on the TV without stopping to watch, but a film that almost angers me in its pure idiocy and lack of coherence.
The film is Inland Empire, and in 2006 after watching the trailer, I was amped to see it. I’m not sure why, because I knew I probably wouldn’t like it, but the eerie trailer and startling images, coupled with music sung by Lynch himself, captured my imagination. With eager anticipation I sat down to watch Inland Empire in its three-hour entirety, and three hours later I was completely lost, totally baffled, and irritated to the point of migraine.
Inland Empire is surreal, no doubt. Surreal in its preposterous story, surreal in its pretentiousness and its willingness to throw confusing nonsense at the screen for the sake of doing just that, surreal in its almost unwatchable digital photography that feels like one long Aronofsky super closeup shot of Ellen Burstyn’s face, surreal in its awful sound quality. Yet it somehow has an ability to pull me back in faster than Michael Corleone was pulled back into the crime world. I keep watching this mess, I keep watching the story unfold, only to depart into a canned-laughter sitcom of people in rabbit costumes living like humans in a green apartment. I keep studying dance sequences with women, shot with a backdrop of fake lightning and screen noise that would surely induce a seizure in an epileptic. For some reason, I can’t stop watching this train wreck. Maybe that is the idea.
David Lynch will never be labeled as a dull director, but genius? I struggle with labeling him as such. But he does have a keen eye at times. There are individual images, certain points in his films where things do work, but I feel like he sabotages them in order to keep his indie credibility or simply to make things confusing or strange on purpose. There are flashes of brilliance in his career, and some films that have garnered praise (The Straight Story) that I didn't touch on. Perhaps Mulholland Dr. really is a masterwork. I intend on looking back on Mulholland Dr. with an open mind and a fresh perspective, and maybe I will see it. What I will never see, however, is the purpose for Inland Empire, the explanation for the lazy give up right in the middle of Lost Highway, or the brilliance despite a grating, annoying picture that is Blue Velvet. I am sure I am missing something great, something profound that fanboys and scholars will chastise me for, but so be it. Explaining that Mulholland Dr. exists as a dream is okay, but using that on Lost Highway or Inland Empire is not okay. It is lazy. Lynch is sometimes weird for the sake of being weird, and as he pulls the rug out from under the audience, he simultaneously firebombs effective storytelling.
Or maybe I’m just the crazy one.