From the slightly strange to the utterly bizarre: David Lynch is known for his ability to turn surreal, seemingly non sequitur stories into original, highly acclaimed pieces of cinema.
Lynch’s films differ from the average psychological ‘plot-twist’-style thriller because there is no obvious plot, let alone a twist. Scenes, symbols and characters can have no significance to the plot and the film ends with no cliffhanger, no closure no resolution. It just finishes, as if to say “The End – get over it”.
Yet, despite all of this, David Lynch has created beautiful, incredible films that are not only great works in their own right but hugely influenced other directors. You can see Lynch’s style reflected in Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) and Darren Aronofsky’s Pi (1998). Over time Lynch’s work itself has become more refined and popular, reaching a wider audience, whilst still maintaining the distinctive imagery and motifs that separate it from the rest.
Lynch’s magic lies in seamlessly blending a prosaic matter, the realism of small-town life, with a poetic surrealist form begot of non-linear narrative and a roll-call of bizarre and unsettling characters. This is a true theatre of the absurd yet one that draws you inexorably into Lynch’s parallel universe.
Strange happenings in his films, such as the mysterious man who appears intermittently in Lost Highway (1997), are not clearly paranormal or occult, but rather just a part of the film, unquestioned and unexplained. In some ways, Lynch seems to reflect the reality of life more than “realistic” films – things we see, the strange person in a crowd, the inexplicable event on the street.
For first-time viewers, there’s a sense that something has been missed, some crucial part of the story, that will lead to everything falling into place and making sense – well, prepare to be sorely disappointed on that front; instead just let yourself fall into his world, don’t question, just luxuriate in the sumptuous absurdity.
Watch Lynch’s films for a while and you’ll realise storyline is almost irrelevant to the enjoyment and the message of the film. There are times when you think “Yes! There are links between the events that their significance is about to be made clear!”. Curb your enthusiasm; this is never quite the case. Think James Joyce with a camera and you get the gist.
Despite, or even because of, all the confusion and frustration, there is a huge amount of enjoyment to be had through watching the likes of Mulholland Drive (2001) and Blue Velvet (1986). The best way to enjoy a Lynch film is not to try to understand it, but rather let the film wash over you, and appreciate the dreamlike beauty of the cinematography and allow the baffling events to unfold without question. It’s like having an obscure dream, and remembering it all afterwards. On the one hand, it is completely illogical and abstruse, and on the other it all seemed to make sense at the time.
Lynch’s cinematography is something else that sets him apart from other art-house directors. The aesthetics of each scene are still beautifully composed, with aspects of the rooms hinting at the unusual but less obviously so than in many art-house films.
Lynch uses darkness and shadow as much as colour and light, and leaves out any grandiose special effects or overly vivid colour schemes. It’s unpretentious, and without any particular agenda. It never seems as if Lynch is trying to express or amount to anything in particular, but rather just creating films to be viewed. The term moving picture never rang more true.
Although not a film, Twin Peaks (1990-) is where Lynch’s style really became accessible and comprehensible to the mainstream audience. Being a series and so allowing much more time than a movie, the oddities of each character could develop. The unpredictable plot, quintessential to Lynch’s work, was given time to progress in a less abrupt way – a slight dilution but certainly not Lynch Lite.
Subtleties such as Agent Cooper’s transformation from the average FBI agent to someone who wears lumberjack shirts and practises a “Tibetan method” of deduction in order to help him solve the mystery added to the unravelling main storyline. The tropes and symbols within the show became established and memorable, such as the iconic red room and ‘man from another place’.
Laura Palmer’s death is eventually, kind of, explained, yet it still doesn’t entirely make sense, nor would it improve the show if it did. Most popular television shows are one thing or another- be it comedy, crime or horror. They may be exaggerated, but they are still believable. Twin Peaks transcends this, the characters are fascinating and whilst the audience can follow the storyline and relate to them, they aren’t exactly like “real” people. Lynch strikes again, inviting the viewers to watch and interpret at their will, without making easy viewing.
In making cinema out of the absurd, and taking weird to another level, Lynch became a hugely important part of film history. His work is an example of trial and error, some scenes hailed as genius and others as nonsense. Lynch’s work is so open to interpretation that it’s almost impossible to rank or compare to other styles of film.
Eraserhead (1977), for example, is so raw and perturbing that it feels as though Lynch has not held back in the slightest, that he’s poured every last strange thought into it, yet at the same time it is indecipherable to the point of still leaving Lynch and his mind a mystery to us.
The fact that so many people do enjoy Lynch films as much as, if not more than, the conventional run of the mill horror speaks largely about our ability to appreciate things that we don’t understand. In viewing the films, the audience is led to explore the worlds of individuals and the boundaries between reality and perception.
There’s something paradoxically refreshing about Lynch’s work. Despite being emotionally heavy, at times nightmarish and although the likes of Inland Empire (2006) or Eraserhead might not be appropriate for a first date or a family film night (but then again, each to their own!), there’s individuality and ultimately the clear Lynch stamp of impenetrable weirdness prevails.
Eliza Slawther holds an MA in Journalism from City, University of London.