Fall 2014

Unearthly Pleasures

The mysteries of David Lynch are meant to be experienced, not solved. In works like Eraserhead, Twin Peaks, and Mulholland Dr., he created a dream world of dread and beauty unlike any other.


DGA Quarterly Classics David Lynch Blue Velvet
Blue Velvet (1986), (Photo: AMPAS)

In the beginning, for David Lynch, there was not the word, but the light. His first feature, the midnight-movie classic Eraserhead (1977), starts with an extraordinary six-minute silent sequence that seems to be his version of the creation of the world—or, at least, the creation of the very particular world of this film, in which light appears to have a mind of its own, an agenda as inscrutable as a god’s. In the darkness, a man’s face floats into view, in profile, horizontal, lit from above and partially obscuring what looks like a rocky, uninhabited planet; there’s another man, whose skin is as pebbly as the surface of that unaccountable planet’s, who sits next to a broken window, gazing pensively, and occasionally pulling a lever. You have no idea what’s going on, but the way the light plays over the strange textures and obscure surfaces holds you anyway, suggesting mysteries and teasing revelations.

Because Lynch wants you to see this inexplicable stuff as clearly as possible, he has, on the new Criterion Collection Blu-ray of Eraserhead, provided an extra he calls “TV Calibration,” in which he walks viewers through a series of adjustments that will produce exactly the brightness, sharpness, and contrast he considers necessary for the proper viewing of his phantasmagoric black-and-white imagery. The appearance of a ghostly figure on the black screen tells you if you’ve done it right. You need just enough light for the mysteries to be visible.

Eraserhead was shot largely—over a period of five or six years—in the stables behind the old American Film Institute in Beverly Hills, with periodic forays into the meaner streets of Los Angeles. There’s a weird voluptuousness about the way the light falls on people and things, sometimes harshly, sometimes gently, sometimes flickering as if the camera were blinking in disbelief. Watching this seductively bizarre film, which turns into a domestic nightmare about a sad-sack hero, Henry (John Nance), and his alien-looking baby, who never stops squalling, you might find it hard to believe that the director wound up having any kind of career in movies or (even less likely) television. Lynch has, however, managed to get a remarkable number of his idiosyncratic visions onto the cinema screens of the world over the past three-and-a-half decades, and even to have, for one brief, improbable cultural moment, a hit TV series, Twin Peaks (1990-91), which is by happy coincidence also just out on Blu-ray.

The new 10-disc box set, Twin Peaks: The Entire Mystery, contains the full two-season run of the show, which consisted of a 90-minute pilot directed by Lynch and 29 weekly hourlong episodes (five of which he directed), plus the 1992 movie Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, also directed by Lynch. (There’s the usual package of deleted scenes and production featurettes, and an alternative version of the pilot, prepared for European theatrical release, but no audio commentary, because Lynch disapproves.) The series was essentially a warped soap opera with, for the first half of its run at least, a big, sordid mystery at its center: In a Pacific Northwest logging town, where time seems to have stood still, a teenage girl, Laura Palmer, has been brutally murdered, her body wrapped in plastic, and in the course of the investigation all sorts of nasty secrets—sexual, financial, pharmaceutical, cosmic—are revealed.

DGAQ Classics David Lynch directing Twin Peaks
Twin Peaks (1990-91), (Photo: Capital Cities/ABC/Photofest)

In the years between Eraserhead and Twin Peaks, Lynch had proved to Hollywood that he could be something more than a purely experimental filmmaker. What he showed, in a sense, was that there was nothing pure about him at all. His first commercial project, The Elephant Man (1980), was a black-and-white biopic about a severely deformed man, and although the film wasn’t conventionally sentimental, it moved enough Academy voters to earn eight Oscar nominations; it resulted, too, in a DGA Awards nomination. His next picture, the big-budget science fiction epic Dune (1984), flopped, but a couple of years later, in Blue Velvet (1986), he got his unique mixture of elements right: a mystery that begins with the discovery of a severed human ear, into which the camera tracks slowly, right into the darkness and beyond. That down-the-rabbit-hole kind of shot is one of the director’s signature effects; he uses it in the enigmatic final episode of Twin Peaks, and yet again in Mulholland Dr. (2001), in which a track into a small blue box marks the film’s passage to a deeper level of nightmare.

The boundaries between darkness and light are Lynch’s home territory, both thematically and technically. What’s fascinating about watching his uncompromising work in Eraserhead back to back with the network-approved episodes he directed for Twin Peaks is that his style is fundamentally unchanged. His lighting is as odd and suggestive on the TV show, filmed in color, as it had been in his dreamlike black-and-white debut feature; the ominous tracking shots, bringing us closer and closer to what we’re not at all sure we want to see, are a constant, too. And in both the early work and the later, Lynch likes to vary the rhythm and tone of the narrative, to alternate, sometimes abruptly, moments of sheer dread with bursts of goofy comedy. In Eraserhead, John Nance’s shuffling gait and perennially puzzled expression seem derived from silent clowns like Harry Langdon, and Twin Peaks has more than its share of dumb sight gags, many of them involving coffee, pie, and doughnuts.

As a house style for a television series, Lynch’s manner—based, as it seems to be, on an intensely personal collection of obsessions—is perhaps not ideal, and other series directors sometimes struggled to strike the proper “Lynchian” note. The ones who succeeded best, like Tina Rathborne, Lesli Linka Glatter, and Tim Hunter, were those whose sensibilities were similarly skewed, who weren’t fazed by having to tune their instruments to the weird key Lynch is playing in. The series was always balanced, perilously, on the edge of self-parody, and it never took much to tip it over: After Lynch and his chief collaborator, Mark Frost, grudgingly agreed to obey the network’s demand to solve the mystery of Laura Palmer, the show became for long stretches merely silly, a Wonderland running dangerously low on wonders.

DGAQ Classics David Lynch Mullholland Dr
Mulholland Dr. (2001) (Photo: AMPAS)

Although by all accounts neither Lynch nor Frost was especially interested in who killed Laura Palmer, when they unmasked the murderer (in the 14th regular episode of the series), they didn’t do it halfheartedly. Lynch’s direction of the climactic sequence, the murder of Laura’s look-alike cousin, Madeleine (both played by Sheryl Lee), is as horrifying as you’d expect, a deranging montage composed of some of the show’s characteristic visual techniques: extreme slow motion, strobing light, screams and low guttural sounds, sudden violence and equally sudden glimmers of tenderness. But the mayhem is intercut with parallel action in Twin Peaks’ smoky nightclub, the Roadhouse, where the breathy-voiced chanteuse Julee Cruise sings a languid ballad called “The World Spins” to several of the series’ other characters, and as Madeleine meets her terrible end, the Roadhouse patrons are overcome by a powerful collective sadness; Laura’s best friend begins to weep, not knowing why. It’s a superb sequence, in Lynch’s best manner, alternating two radically different moods to create something else, a feeling that can’t quite be named.

From there, it was downhill for Twin Peaks, although Lynch returned to direct what proved to be the final episode, an hour of berserk, full-on surrealism—red room, dancing dwarf, characters meeting their doppelgängers, the works—that generated mysteries that would remain forever unsolved. (That’s the way he likes them, really.) The feature that followed the series, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, is a prequel, focusing on the week before Laura Palmer’s death, and what’s interesting about it is Lynch’s jettisoning of all the soap-opera elements of the weekly show, and most of the comedy: The movie concentrates, with impressive relentlessness, on the horrors. The style is more muted, almost austere, and the lighting is colder. It’s an unusually mournful movie, about a young woman in bad trouble. Watching Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me now, you might see it as a kind of study for Mulholland Dr., in which another tragic, hopeful blonde (Naomi Watts) passes through the looking glass and loses herself.

Mulholland Dr., which might be Lynch’s masterpiece, began life as a TV pilot, too, but because it wasn’t picked up, it became—as things tend to do in this artist’s world—something wholly other, a what-is-it? mystery that murders sleep, like Henry’s baby. Although the familiar, immediately recognizable Lynch techniques are here, the film feels like a new sort of synthesis, arrived at slowly through the experiments of Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks (series and movie), and the cracked neo-noir Lost Highway (1997), in which the director played with extreme dislocations in narrative and characters’ identities. This is the way he works, lurching from synthesis to synthesis, recombining his obsessions, his favorite techniques, his stray notions until somehow, someday, they coalesce—becoming a whole new, undreamed-of entity in the world. He’s a filmmaker who prefers to take things slowly, and although his movies have been influential, his methods can’t be duplicated by other directors; they’re unique to him, as immutable and inarguable as DNA.

What directors can learn from, though, is his openness to the vagaries of imagination, his willingness to trust even the momentary, unlikely-seeming intuition. On those rare occasions when Lynch has been cajoled into talking about his art, he speaks vaguely, dreamily, about the importance of “catching ideas,” making them sound like things floating in ether, like the unidentified objects caught by the unearthly light of the prologue to Eraserhead. The trick is to see them, and show them, even if you can’t say exactly what they are.

DVD Classics

A look at the careers of historically significant directors or genres through new DVD releases.

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