David Lynch isn’t exactly modern. He’s been making films since the late 70s. However, he’s one of my favourites, and he’s modern enough. Lynch started out as a painter, but began experimenting with film in the late 60s. He was given a grant, and with it he created his first feature length film, Eraserhead in 1977. Eraserhead quickly became a cult classic, catching the attention of Mel Brooks (yes that Mel Brooks). It was Brooks who gave Lynch his big break with the film The Elephant Man (1980). That film earned Lynch two Academy Award nominations: for directing and adapted screenplay. From there, Lynch went on to become one of the most distinctive filmmakers of his generation. So distinct, in fact, that the term “Lynchian” was coined to describe his style.
Lynch’s films tend to be dark, surreal, and frightening, but with dashes of bizarre humour. It can be off-putting to some, but riveting to others (see this infamous debate over Blue Velvet). Lynch often likes to explore the underbelly of the American dream. Small towns (or big cities) are cheerfully shown, then layers are stripped back to reveal disturbing elements. Many of his films can be difficult to get through as they don’t usually follow conventional movie rules. There can be scenes that pop up that don’t appear to fit with the film. There can be random extreme close ups of objects. A lot of seemingly random things happen in Lynch films. However random they may seem, though, they work. They work with a sort of dream logic that Lynch is famous for. Lynch has stated that he often doesn’t think of the meaning behind his work, preferring to operate on feeling. It’s a dangerous system to be working with, but Lynch is able to pull it off.
His combination of craft and concept is probably the main reason he is so successful. His concepts provoke, while his craft is undeniable. Being a painter, it comes as no surprise that Lynch shoots his films immaculately, and puts a lot of thought into what goes on in front of the camera. He also pays a lot of attention to the sound design of his films – not just the score, but the sound. There are very few other directors that put so much effort into the way their films sound. And Lynch’s films sound great.
Lynch also posses a very distinct personality. This personality, coupled with his film work, has made him into a sort of icon in the filmmaking community. Much like Werner Herzog, Lynch has a larger than life persona that makes him all the more fascinating (his story of meeting George Lucas is incredibly entertaining). His charmingly unique personality has made it easy for him to transition into other mediums with success. Most famously, his television show, Twin Peaks, was a phenomenon in the early 90s and is still one of the most important television shows ever made (X-Files certainly wouldn’t exist without it). More recently, Lynch as found some success in the music industry. He also continues to paint and sculpt, while also dabbling in still photography. So, you could say David Lynch is a bit of a Renaissance man.
So, where should one start in Lynch’s oeuvre? Here’s my rundown:
Where to Start:
Blue Velvet (1986) – Lynch’s first major film that is all him. He was given complete control, and it shows. This is a must for any film fan. It still remains controversial to this day.
Mulholland Dr. (2001) – A fascinating puzzle of a movie. One of, if not the best, Lynch film. Lynch again explores the underbelly of the American dream, but this time in Hollywood.
Where Not to Start:
Inland Empire (2006) – Three and a half hours of David Lynch experimenting with story and with digital filmmaking. Definitely a must for any Lynch fan, but a very bad place to start without seeing any of his previous films.
Dune (1984) – Lynch’s first and only attempt at a big budget blockbuster. Studio interference and other problems ultimately sunk the film (Lynch refuses to discuss it), but it still remains a fascinating entry in Lynch’s filmography, and a fascinating sci-fi film in general. I’m a fan, but it’s not the best representation of Lynch’s work.
Wild at Heart (1990) – Lynch’s bizarre, delirious riff on road movies and The Wizard of Oz. Incredibly strange and filled with memorable characters (Willem Dafoe’s Bobby Peru being perhaps the best).
Eraserhead (1977) – Bizarre, dark, and creepy. Lynch’s first film is still unlike anything you’ve ever seen.