Wednesday, August 1, 2012

David Lynch, Ranked

(This is my first entry in the Favorite Directors Blogathon. Next month is Ingmar Bergman.)

Of all the filmmakers I could claim to be among my favorites, I probably have the most long-standing and thorough relationship with the cinema of David Lynch. Of course, he's a director interested in a fairly seedy, macabre universe, and as such I've spent what could perhaps be defined as an unhealthy amount of time consuming and burrowing into his work. That being said, I haven't seen any of his films in quite some time, the last significant stretch of viewing being my 2009 blogathon (wherein I did retrospectively inadequate and amateurish work trying to dissect his genius), but the fact that after a considerable time away from his sensibility there is still a rather influential Lynchian element to my perception of the world says a great deal. I'm beginning to believe the power of Lynch's images and the rhythm of his cinematic world is impossible to shake. He belongs to a coveted handful of directors who have constructed a reality that is totally distinctive and separate from our own. Many directors react to the external world to construct their personal brands; Lynch finds uncharted territory within.


1. Mulholland Drive: Not only does Mulholland Drive re-contextualize Vertigo, it goes beyond it, offering up an incredibly rich exploration of desire, identity, dreams, articiality, and the Hollywood dream machine. The film overflows with doppelgangers, cinematic quotations, genre pastiches, red herrings, euphoric twists, and enigmatic characters; in many ways, it's a deconstructive history of Hollywood cinema itself and the various techniques it uses to simultaneously provoke audience excitement and suggest deeper psychological constructs. The real miracle is how Lynch manages to wrangle all of his seemingly disparate threads together in support of the film's overarching themes while never breaking the spell of the haunting atmosphere.

2. Eraserhead: Speaking of haunting atmospheres, Lynch's debut is seemingly built entirely around them. Alongside some Quay Brothers and some Tarr, Eraserhead is easily within the pantheon of cinema's greatest sustained mood pieces. It relishes in dirt, fog, concrete, industrial moans, slimy liquids, and metal, an environment at once frighteningly tactile and vaguely surreal. Missing the idea that it's actually about rather abysmal human fears (of parenthood, of commitment, of change) and not just disgusting mutant babies and dudes with weird hair and weird mannerisms is easy; Lynch has designed this throbbing drone so that it only affects on the subtlest, most subconscious levels.

3. INLAND EMPIRE: Six years after its release (it feels a lot shorter) and INLAND EMPIRE is still the most fascinating exploitation of the inherent strangeness of the digital medium. Lynch unloaded his subconscious directly onto video, crafting (maybe regurgitating is a better word) a flowing stream of sequences that are all the more mysterious, visceral, and uncomfortable for the sense of intimacy encouraged by digital shooting. The film is a tantalizing patchwork of non-sequiturs, a raw mashup of undigested thriller scenarios that feel as if their logical beginning and end points have been excised, leaving only ghostly hints of a larger narrative design. Many have called and continue to call this baffling and lazy; I see it as one of the most fearless experiments yet in this young 21st century.

4. Lost Highway: Ever the victim of lazy critics hungry to whip out their collection of mortal sin adjectives ("pretentious," "self-indulgent," etc.), I can only hope Lost Highway will one day be widely seen for what it is: a devilish companion piece to Mulholland Drive and a twisted, sometimes scattershot extension of that film's core themes. Like its predecessor, Lost Highway is also bifurcated, hinging on a killer paradigm shift that sends ripples of intrigue throughout the entire film. But its lasting impact has less to do with broad structure or subtext and more to do with eerie specifics: the icy stare of Robert Blake as one of Lynch's greatest "villains," the spectacular vision of a house exploding in backwards slow motion, or the dual performance of Patricia Arquette as a soft-spoken wife and a steamy femme fatale, among many other delights.

5. The Straight Story: This is way, way under-appreciated. Anyone claiming Lynch is a misanthrope or an incapable dramatist should see this moving parable about an old farmer (Richard Farnsworth) taking his John Deere across the country to rekindle an estranged relationship with his brother (Harry Dean Stanton). The film is as delicate as the fading sunsets that color its many iconic landscapes, and as unapologetically earnest as a Douglas Sirk movie. Lynch puts great trust in the human face too; I recall Stanton's mopey thousand-mile-stare as much as Farnsworth's elongated wrinkles and scruffy white beard, and the former's only in the film for the final five minutes while the latter is in every scene.

6. Blue Velvet: I've long found the dichotomy at the center of Blue Velvet - white picket fences, red fire trucks, and bright green lawns vs. rape, insects, a bloody ear, offensive language, and cocaine - to be overly pronounced and simplistic, but the more I've watched the film and the more I understand that subtlety is not the only route to complexity, the more I've fallen under the hideous spell of Blue Velvet. For what it's worth, it's one of Lynch's most formally precise films, from its suggestive color coding to its dramatic contrasts in lighting and composition. Part of the appeal is seeing how far Lynch will go to take Bigger Than Life to its logical extreme; the narrow chasm between complacency and chaos is not only explored, but torn violently apart.

7. Twin Peaks (TV): A further adventure into hokey Americana and offhand surrealism, Lynch's fifteen minutes of national fame came from this landmark television series (is it fair that it's on a list of features?), which offers the most extensive journey into any of the filmmaker's milieus. Among the discoveries are that Lynch can indeed sustain pitch-perfect direction of actors over long periods of time, that sometimes his characters reveal unforeseen depths when observed long enough, and that no level of critical/commercial success or fanboy baggage could water down his claustrophobic dread and aggressive weirdness (in many cases, these public responses seem to have encouraged it). Granted, Lynch didn't always serve in the director's chair, so not all of the show's accomplishments can be indebted to him, but the most memorable episodes are surely his concoctions.

8. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me: Hindered by the fatal flaw of needlessly exploring the previously unseen, already mysterious final days of Laura Palmer, Fire Walk With Me is essentially doomed by definition, fated to play like a tacked-on addendum to an enigmatic success. But for all its sloppiness, Lynch, against all odds, does manage to pose a relatively persuasive argument for the film's existence. Alongside awkward shifts in tone and Lynch's rare comedic misfires, there are scenes of devastating intimacy and psychological rawness. The film's treatment of Laura Palmer's disturbed case is - in the company of several more elliptical presentations of mental illness in Lynch's oeuvre - refreshingly direct and unflinching.

9. The Elephant Man: This strikes me as Lynch's most commercial effort; others may point to The Straight Story, but that film feels genuine and heartfelt to me, a real expression of a certain part of Lynch's spirit. Too often, The Elephant Man, even in spite of its occasional Lynchian flourishes (I think of corporate chains advertising the one "signature" aspect of their otherwise slickly manufactured product), comes across as a Respectable Great Film, which is to say it's well-made and suggestive of "human themes," but it's rarely evocative or expressive. As far as Oscar-worthy projects go, this is fairly adventurous, with exceptionally tender performances from John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins at its center, but none of Lynch's features feel this much like they could have been directed by anyone.

10. Wild at Heart: Wild at Heart is the schematic design of Blue Velvet taken to the nth degree minus the thrilling surface pleasures and presented with barely half the conviction, coherence, or control. It's the stuff of midnight movies, and that's fine if that's what you're after, but since its appeal never reaches beyond ironic jeers and mocking hollers I can't see the value in it. Without the peculiar sincerity that, say, John Waters brought to this type of material, the film just comes across as ugly and hateful, as well as a seemingly deliberate dumbing down of Lynch's talents. Also, there are Wizard of Oz motifs of unintentional hilarity. Enough said.

11. Dune: I'm tempted to not even include Dune in a summary of Lynch's features because of its well-documented production obstacles and nearly author-less patina (see: Alan Smithee). But it remains on his IMDB page and for good enough reason; there's a lot in the film that is recognizably the creation of Lynch (an obsession with grotesque wormlike objects, an affinity with Kyle MacLachlan, a penchant for exaggerated character traits). I'd like to say that there's charm to its cardboard sets, bulky costumes, awful special effects, and inscrutable plotting, but that would be a lie. I will not pretend that I was even lightly entertained by this insufferable behemoth.

Shorts / Oddities

1. The Grandmother: (From my 2009 review) "Lynch's ability to shock and disquiet with his early style reached its zenith with 1970's American Film Institute-funded The Grandmother, yet another oddball mixture of animation and live action. The film was his longest piece yet at 34 minutes, and also his most dense, despite being wordless. Shot in a chiaroscuro gloom, it follows the experiences of a young boy in a black suit living in a Gothic, shadowy home with his two subhuman parents."

2. Premonition Following an Evil Deed: (From my 2009 review) "In a way, it's a mini procedural drama, reminiscent of Twin Peaks, but it's also completely elusive...a monochrome fantasia that hearkens back to the wonder of early motion pictures while keeping in line with a modern, abstract sensibility."

3. Commercial for Parisienne cigarettes: Hilariously indifferent to the product it's allegedly selling, this minute-long explosion of backwards-motion strangeness registers as the logical illustration of Lynch's outspoken disapproval of cinematic advertising and product placement, a supposed value he's violated consistently regardless.

4. The Cowboy and the Frenchman: (From my 2009 review) "Ultimately, the film becomes a no-holds-barred joke. Every chance Lynch gets, he hyperbolizes the already mindless caricatures; the Frenchman, with his beret, suit, and mustachio, does little more than stare like a puppy dog at his surroundings and swoon romantically to the tune of his journal, the cowboys shoot birds and snakes uncontrollably and repeat their orders dumbfounded, and the women wear high jeans while serving the men food or offering them someone to sleep next to."

5. More Things That Happened: An extension of the atmosphere and incomplete narrative strands of INLAND EMPIRE that shifts between providing unexpected commentary on the original film and redundantly circling back to its greatest features. I'm usually not keen on the idea of directors belatedly adding on to or revising their work, but in this case it feels like an organic continuation of Lynch's digital intuition.

6. Georgia Armani Commercial: An aura of high-society corruption and deceptive surface glamour percolates throughout this two-and-a-half-minute TV spot for Georgia Armani, and it seems to uncannily predate the themes of Mulholland Drive and Lost Highway. It's succinctly about how a human, in pursuit of an idea or an image, can be reduced to a product.

7. The Alphabet: (From my 2009 review) " Lynch makes unconventional use of sound. Grating cracks, hisses, and whines emanate from the soundtrack, matched seemingly without motivation to the events onscreen. For instance, what sounds like a dying bird pairs up with the animation of a white ball ascending up a black corridor. This utterly irrational aural manipulation recalls the works of Alejandro Jodorowsky, and through it Lynch finds the perfect madness of nightmares."

8. Six Men Getting Sick: (From my 2009 review) "The first stirrings of Lynch's penchant for warped, dour artistic content, and [it] certainly foreshadows the kind of personal anguish experienced by the leading boy in The Grandmother, or Henry in Eraserhead."

9. NYC Public Service Announcement: Materializes nightmares of urban filth as powerfully as Eraserhead.

10. Crazy Clown Time (music video): Wacky and unsettling, redundant and perversely literal, Lynch's music video for the nightmarish title-track off his spotty foray into music in 2011 is the kind of thing I fear we'll be seeing from Lynch far too much in the coming years. It's entertaining for now, but I'd love to see him get back to creating substantial cinema.

Further Reading:

- Loren Rosson's list over at The Busybody


Iammine78 said...

"Not only does Mulholland Drive re-contextualize Vertigo, it goes beyond it, offering up an incredibly rich exploration of desire, identity, dreams, articiality, and the Hollywood dream machine."

The first thought I had after reading this observation was this...I would be highly interested in an explorative journey that has you traveling to LA for the soul directive of your understanding and literal perceptions of Los Angeles as influenced by David Lynch.

Loren Rosson III said...

Nice rankings, Carson, and very thoughtful the way you accounted for them. I think the only serious disagreement we have is over Inland Empire; I've tried to see its strengths but still come up short. I too placed Dune and Wild at Heart at rock bottom, and I'd be suspicious of any Lynch list that did otherwise. And I completely share your outrage for the scorn heaped on Lost Highway -- what's wrong with people here?

I haven't seen any of Lynch's shorts, so nice to see these included as well.

Carson Lund said...

Brian, I'm actually headed to LA in the Fall for three months! Funny that you mention that. I'm sure I'll see it through Lynchian eyes.

Loren, the list of shorts is also in rough preferential order, but he has made many more than what's listed here, notably a few Playstation commercials that are worth watching. As an artist who has always worked in different formats (painting, music, coffee roasting), I felt it was fitting to include his short-form work as well.

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