I’ve got a particular obsession with David Lynch. Working outside of traditional narrative logic, he instead asks everyone to figure his works out on their own. We never get a straight answer from him. In an interview on Sky Movies he is quoted as calling Eraserhead his “most spiritual film.” When asked to elaborate on that he simply said, “No,” a slight smile on his face. His high-toned voice reminds one of Ned Flanders, but his entire public persona is that of a macabre genius that refuses to tell you exactly what he’s made. Most have a complicated relationship with him, but few can deny that what he does is impressive.
I first came to him through The Elephant Man. One night I was called into the living room to watch a movie with my parents, and as a young child the opportunity to stay up late meant I was going to watch whatever it was. Images of a twisted, bulbous man and the kind doctor that took pity on him stuck with me for days, but it was the willing destruction of his body at the end of the film that moved me. Seeing him move his pillows, necessary for him to breathe through the night, and willingly go out on a high note, left me with a pit in my stomach. Years later, when I was 28, my family had completely forgotten the film even existed and were delighted when I invited them to join me for a local screening. It was one of the best experiences of my life, to reintroduce them to a director that had molded how I viewed cinema.
Of course the other film I grew into him with was Dune. A young sci-fi nerd, I was enamored with the novel and desperate to see the film. My mother sat me down to watch it one day on television, an extended edition that is still the way I prefer to take it in. That young, I didn’t really see the mess that it was but appreciated what I saw because of the wild images, the actors I recognized, and the story I loved partially brought to life. I still pop it on once in a while, but only when I want to unwind.
After childhood I set Lynch aside, still unsure of who he was or what he stood for. I knew his name, but looking him up online (and in the days of dial-up that was a chore) I recognized none of his films by name and assumed he was an underground director that had nothing more to contribute than what I’d seen. I often did this with directors as a young man, looking instead to your Nolans and our Spielbergs because they did the big projects. During this phase, I considered these kind of people the peak of cinema and for the most part ignored those that didn’t reach a larger audience. We all make mistakes at that age, but I’ve done a complete turn on this idea and began to embrace the weird ones.
Run forward to 2015, the year I got into the Criterion Collection. I kept finding his name on forums and Reddit threads, little discussions of how incredible his inclusion was and how great the film was. I had no idea what Eraserhead was, but I was impressionable and looking to try him out again. I snagged it and let it sit on my shelf for a couple of weeks, a bit weirded out by the cover and not sure if I’d made a good purchase. I considered trading it on the forums for another film, but eventually broke down and watched it.
I fell in love with a director. It might have been the first time since I found Aronofsky that I loved someone’s particular ouvre enough to dive into their entire filmography.
What Eraserhead did to me was hard to fathom at first. All at once a film about the fear of fatherhood, a fear of sexual interaction, and about the destruction of the body through life in an industrial setting, it shook me to my core and left me breathless. Each piece of it would be nonsensical on its own, but when all tied together these elements twist into a nightmare that might have only been able to come from this man.
The father, Henry Spencer, is at first introduced via his mental state. We’re shown a decaying individual only described as “the man in the planet,” a mangled man that controls Henry’s actions with rusty levers from a control room. Right from the start the audience is introduced to the idea that we are all, none of us, in complete control of our actions. Our baser functions are manipulated by something in our bran and we have no say in those life decisions. In a disturbing scene, a wobbly sperm emerges from the floating head of Henry Spencer and crashes into a hard, craggled egg that launches the rest of the film’s events. Sexual impulse drives the entirety of the plot (or what there is of it), whether it be the action or the fear of it, and responses to it derive from within us instead of from our conscious decisions. Lynch is obsessed with creating a nightmare reality, a dreamscape that he can manipulate at will, and this early offering shows so much of what drives him on. There’s a drive to warp existence on the basis of sexual attraction that is never dropped.
This drive never left him. From Eraserhead I ran out and bought Mulholland Drive as soon as the Criterion Collection released it. I watched it that night with a hot toddy and again had my brain wrapped into a jumbled ball of tattered flesh. Again I was presented with a non-reality, a nightmare built into a dream that was then iced over with harsh truth. Built out of what was reported to be a dropped television pilot, the seams between his comedic deliveries and ugly facts never show. Fans and critics alike have tried to tear out the sutures ever since its release at Cannes and there has been little-to-no success. This time taking cues from Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, he works with the molding of personalities into a singular individual. It’s a hard line to walk, but he does it beautifully.
Between 1977 and 2001, when both of these films were released, he stepped out of his comfort zone a few times. Projects close to his heart, however, maintained these lines. For every film like Dune or The Straight Story there’s one like Lost Highway or Blue Velvet. His nightmares and dreams are still brought to life throughout the whole run. Even at the beginning of Mulholland Drive, Naomi Watts’s character Betty is given a glistening polish to her idealistic character. She tells her hopes and dreams to a sweet elderly couple on the flight to LA, and as they drive away their smiles seem stuck to their faces with sticky tape and the unsettling feeling running under the world Lynch is creating becomes visible. Laura Harring’s amnesiac character Rita soon enters the scene and the two follow a mystery down the rabbit hole, slowly morphing into mirror images of each other. As they engage in a sexually charged night together, the scene morphs them into one person. Rita is in hiding, wearing a wig that makes her resemble Betty’s natural cropped blonde look, and they become a singular moment in a dream. Club Silencio, the blue key, all of these elements combine to make them one person. When reality (or is it?) finally takes the stage everything changes, from the interactions to the idea of anger in sexual desire.
I’ve grown to love most of his films, but none like these two. Attachment to a director isn’t a new phenomenon to me, but I don’t think I took to one as quickly as I did David Lynch and it’s because of these films. Instances of darkly beautiful dream worlds and horrific situational settings drew me in and I return to them frequently, at one point watching Eraserhead once every 6 weeks or so in an attempt to wrap my head all the way around it. Stunning and abhorrent, both of them continue to baffle audiences and bring new fans to the table every time they’re brought up. While Eraserhead has become a prominent midnight movie, Mulholland Drive has become an achievement. I can’t wax poetic on the peaks of David Lynch’s career enough, but every time I get the chance I take an opportunity to. I’ve written and thrown out discussions on them before, feeling like I can’t do them justice, but linking the two of them together finally crystalized it for me and I couldn’t resist.
Find these. See these. You won’t be disappointed. Confusion is probable, but it comes with an appreciation of someone who is completely cut loose to do their own thing. There’s no one quite like David Lynch, and if you don’t believe it then give him a shot.