Retrospective: David Lynch Part Six: The Lynch Legacy by Donald McCarthy

Damon Lindelof, the co-creator of LOST, said watching Twin Peaks with his dad is one of his fondest television experiences. David Chase, the auteur who gave us The Sopranos, said Twin Peaks was one of the first television shows he saw that he found captivating and he aimed to have his own show be the Twin Peaks of New Jersey. And when David Chase compliments you, well, then you know you got something right. A number of television writers talked about Twin Peaks’influence on the PBS special “Primetime in America,” all of them discussing how influential the series was and still is today.

You can see it in Mad Men, especially last season’s drug induced plot in the episode “The Crash.” There is the absurd, such as Ken Cosgrove tap dancing which is a scene that would fit right in the Twin Peaks universe but, on the other end, we have moments of surrealism and confused identity (hell, you could point to Draper’s various and constantly shifting identities throughout the series as something out of Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive but stretched out into a television series) such as in the scene, where Don confuses a secretary for someone he met when he was growing up in a brothel.

As David Chase mentioned in the PBS documentary above, The Sopranos tried to match the feeling of the dreams in Twin Peaks, something you can see in Tony’s dream in the season four episode “Calling All Cars.” It’s a horrific dream and realistic, with changes occurring that make no sense but no one in the dream questions them- dream logic at its best. The last moments, with the monstrous specter of his mother on the stairs, is not much different than the surreal nightmare sequences in the red room in Twin Peaks or in the house in Lost Highway.

In LOST we have the famous scene in “Jacob’s” cabin where events spiral out of control and the supernatural suddenly reigns. While LOST featured many supernatural elements during its run, the scene in the cabin was unique in its surrealism and the fact that everything ends as soon as John Locke and Ben step out of the cabin, as if they’ve stepped back into the normal world. This is similar to the supernatural locations that exist in the worlds Lynch creates, worlds that otherwise appear to be completely normal outside of small pockets. LOST’s overall atmosphere also contains the same Twin Peaks element of everything possibly falling apart at a moment’s notice even if there is not an obvious threat in the scene. Hell, the first season is practically defined by that atmosphere.

But don’t think Lynch’s influence is limited solely to television. American Psycho director Mary Harron cites Lynch as one of her favorite directors. Some of the over the top actions of American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman nicely straddle the line between absurdity and horror and any Lynch fan will recognize that feeling. As I talked about back in the article on Eraserhead, Stanley Kubrick had the cast and crew of The Shining watch Eraserhead and told them it contained the atmosphere he wanted to create. David Chase, who I mentioned before, was clearly influenced by Lynch when making his first film, Not Fade Away, which ends with a striking and surreal image (I won’t spoil it here, but go see the film!). Even some of Tarantino’s odder moments have Lynchian elements to them.

Lynch’s daughter, Jennifer Lynch, has also made films, such as Boxing Helena and Surveillance along with an upcoming film titled A Fall from Grace. After seeing the films, you’ll notice how the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree in the Lynch family.

A recent interactive play that’s taken New York City by storm, Sleep No More, is also quite heavily inspired by Lynch both aesthetically and atmospherically. I’ve been a couple of times and it’s a rewarding experience, but also frustrating. So, yes, definitely Lynch inspired. He even inspired an H&M commercial (which, ironically, has a commercial before the commercial when you watch it on YouTube).

I could go on, but we’d be here all day and I believe I still have two films to talk about along with music videos and an album release. Let’s talk about the latter.

In a rather curious and unforeseen, at least for me, announcement, Lynch said he’d be delivering an album called Crazy Clown Time. He followed this release with The Big Dream in 2013. Wondering what they’re like? Well, take a look at the music video.

No, I don’t know what to make of it either. Listen, I’m not a music critic and I sure won’t start trying to be one by analyzing this. What I will say is that it is pretty much exactly what I’d expect a David Lynch album to be like. It’s not something I’d listen to, but the man certainly has a vision for his music, just as he does for his films.

In fact, Lynch has directed music videos for other groups such as Nine Inch Nails and Duran Duran, lending them his unique brand of reality. I don’t think it’s a surprise that Lynch is fascinated with music, his films have always relied on all sorts of sounds, musical and otherwise, but his sudden turn into the music business is an interesting one. In interviews, Lynch has said part of this comes from his current frustration with the movie industry, one that’s become more and more restrictive. However, rumor has it he’s working on another script for a film and that a new Lynch project might be on the horizon. This past year has given us smaller films that have succeeded despite not costing hundreds of millions of dollars to make, such as The ConjuringNow You See Me, and 12 Years a Slave. I think there’s more of a market for a Lynch film than there was even two years ago. Hopefully, he agrees.

But Lynch has been up to more than just music. He’s also designed a nightclub in France called Club Silencio after the club in Mulholland Drive, but it’s not supposed to look the same inside; I can’t speak from experience as I’ve never been to France.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be completely surprised he has taken a break from film. His last film was so far removed from what we normally see even when we take into account that Lynch directed it. 2006’s Inland Empire brought us Lynch’s most difficult film yet. Coming in at three hours, the film is practically an endurance test; I’ve never been able to sit through the whole thing in one go. This isn’t a knock against the film, not at all. If anything, it’s praise as the horrific, disturbing atmosphere Lynch creates is so off-putting that there are many moments when I’m physically moved and not to tears- I’m moving away from the screen. There is a scene in the film where Laura Dern enters Room 47 and sees… this.

How the fuck do I even deal with that? Any analyzing I do is bullshit, because this film is purposely trying to forego all the normal proceedings of a film. It is a purely dream-like, emotional experience that has no inherent meaning, but is instead something of a Rorschach test for the viewer. For me, the film is a nightmare, one I can only barely stomach. The closest movie I can point to that had a similar effect is Taxi Driver and even that cannot compare. In terms of structure, the film is reminiscent of Akira Kurosawa’s Dreams even though Dreams is essentially made up of short films.

I saw this film on DVD and not in a theater. I don’t even want to imagine what would’ve happened if I saw this in theater. I might not have made it all the way through. I might’ve had a seizure. I might’ve become an alcoholic. I might’ve ended up writing this article inside an insane asylum.

Does this make Inland Empire a masterpiece? Or is it so far gone into insanity that it should just be thrown aside? I’ve seen both sides strenuously argued. At the risk of being a bore, I land somewhere in the middle. I don’t think it’s Lynch’s best film or even close to his best film, but I do think it’s a very respectable film. A piece of work that creates such visceral reactions without relying on gore or sexual exploitation is something to be lauded.

However, the film’s narrative is so fractured and so difficult to parse that the film risks becoming inaccessible. If you go and read a summary of the film I doubt you’ll feel much more grounded. I didn’t connect with Laura Dern’s character, Nikki Grace, as I did with Naomi Watts and Laura Harring in Mulholland Drive because she’s so constantly going through surreal moments and transformations that I could never really grasp who she was as a person. If the film was shorter it might work, but clocking in at three hours means I need to be engaged with the main character.

This is by no means Dern’s fault. The performance she gives is nothing short of perfection. Lynch did a big push to get her nominated for an Oscar and she absolutely deserved it because she knocks every scene she’s in out of the park. With even a slightly lesser actress this film would’ve been an absolute disaster. Dern elevates a part that could’ve been a cipher or an overplayed mess.

Lynch’s approach to shooting the film was also odd. He didn’t write much of a script before filming began and improvised much of it during filming. He was not sure where it would end and expected that everything would coalesce as the film went on, as if the film was being revealed to him during the process. In some instances, this did work, such as Laura Dern walking in on an earlier scene and causing that scene to happen. However, much of the rest of the films seems like it is hanging on with barely a finger.

The look of the film is unique, especially after Mulholland Drive, which is a truly beautiful looking film. Lynch decided to film using hand held digital video while shooting Inland Empire and it tends to result in a cheaper look. Digital video has come far since Lynch shot Inland Empire so hopefully this problem will not come up again when he shoots his next film, but it definitely took something away from Inland Empire. I can see an argument that the look furthers the dreamlike atmosphere of the film, but Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive did just fine in that regard without looking as Inland Empire did. For a masterful director, a sudden, cheap look is jarring and, for me, not effective.

But I don’t want to sound completely down on this film. It’s better than Dune and Wild at Heart by far. The film also carries a similar feeling to Lynch’s early short films, such as The Grandmother, which is interesting to see him return to. He’s clearly matured as a filmmaker since then but there’s a similarity in aesthetic and aloofness between Inland Empire and The Grandmother as opposed to the latter and Mulholland Drive.

What Inland Empire does prove, is Lynch has amazing range and it is this fact that makes Lynch such an enduring and influential filmmaker. When you compare Inland Empire to 1999’s The Straight Storythe tones cannot be more different. While The Straight Story has plenty of Lynch touches and you can see many of his familiar elements without much searching, it’s still weird to see a Lynch film devoid of violence, sex, and overly surreal moments. Sure, the idea of a guy going across the country on a tractor sounds a little over the top, despite being based on a true story, but it’s still not much compared to Frank “Fuck that shit!” Booth or The “We’ve met before, haven’t we?” Mystery Man or the tragedy of Mulholland Drive.

Throughout this retrospective series, my enthusiasm for Lynch has no doubt been obvious. With that said, The Straight Story is not one my favorite Lynch films and not one I find myself often revisiting; however, this comes down to personal taste more than quality. There are scenes in this film that are subtle yet just as powerful as any explosive confrontation in other movies. With a great script by Mary Sweeney, Lynch works wonders by elevating small moments into incredibly moving scenes. About halfway through the film we come to a moment when Richard Farnsworth’s Alvin sits down with a fellow war veteran and they discuss their experiences in World War II over drinks in a bar. The camera moves very little during the scene, Lynch has two great actors and knows he doesn’t need to play tricks to make the scene work.


Despite this being about Lynch, I don’t want to overlook Sweeney’s excellent dialogue. It sounds exactly like what you’d expect would come out of the characters’ mouths and instantly defines them as people as opposed to caricatures.  Even lines such as “How the heck are you?” have a certain element of truth to them. The only flaw that I see in the scene is the use of explosions in the background as an audible flashback as the two men talk. The acting is stellar and we don’t need any sound effects to let us know what they’re thinking about.

 

For long time Lynch fans, there’s the feeling that Alvin, his brother Lyle, his daughter Rose, and the rest of the characters are the type of people Lynch wished inhabited small towns like Twin Peaks as opposed to the corrupt and sometimes sociopathic people on display in the show. The Straight Storyis a love letter to a middle America that doesn’t exist, but Lynch wishes did. He takes the true story of a man crossing miles on a tractor to see his ill brother and uses it as a way of examining the decency that resides in individuals.

In Lynch on Lynch, Lynch had this to say about his reasons for making the film: “It was the emotion that came out of the script that got me. That was the main thing and the simplicity of the story… Every film is an experiment, but because there were so few elements going on in The Straight Story, those elements became BIG. So then you have to watch them very closely.”

Lynch also says Farnsworth was key to making the film work and he’s correct. Farnsworth gives Alvin a sense of weariness at times, while at others he gives him an almost childlike glee. If Alvin just seems like a stock elderly character the film wouldn’t work at all. Farnsworth gives Alvin a spectrum of emotions even though there are not a ton of hugely emotional scenes in the film as everything is played towards subtlety. Farnsworth was rightly nominated for an Oscar for his performance and it’s nice to see him get recognition even if it is at the end of his career. Sadly, Farnsworth committed suicide due to intense pain from bone cancer (which he also had while making The Straight Storyamazingly enough) on October 6th, 2000. Considering how into the role he was, I have to think there could have been more amazing performances he could’ve given us if it wasn’t for his cancer.

Farnsworth is another example of Lynch’s penchant for using quality, under the radar actors in his films. Dean Stockwell had been acting since he was a child, but Blue Velvet gave him a chance at performing in a way he never had before. Harry Dean Stanton, who is in this film along with Fire Walk With Me and Wild at Heart, has long been an excellent actor and Lynch has gone to him multiple times for small but meaty parts. Grace Zabriskie did a brilliant job of playing Mrs. Palmer in Twin Peaks and gave an utterly chilling, almost repulsive, performance in Inland Empire and her talents were definitely used to their best by Lynch despite having an almost as memorable part in Seinfeld.

It’s not a surprise Lynch goes to actors like these as he’s always been an underdog in the film industry and more than happy to be one. It’s pretty clear that after Dune he became uninterested in doing any large budget films just so he can make a huge box office result. Has this hurt his career? I don’t know. If he produced a few big budget films would he then be able to finance more smaller films? Perhaps, but I don’t think Lynch would be happy making larger films and I think it’d take a toll on him. Even if we have to wait a number of years in between films it’s worth it so that Lynch can put his vision on the screen for us, unencumbered by test screenings and questions about how “relatable” it is to the audience. The cinematic world is undeniably better because of the contributions of David Lynch and I’ll be going back to his efforts for the rest of my life. Each viewing yields something I either hadn’t seen or hadn’t felt before and there’s little else I can point to that has such an effect.

 


Donald McCarthy is a teacher and writer. His fiction has appeared with KZine, Cover of Darkness, and The Washington Pastime. His non-fiction has been featured in The Progressive Populist, Screen Spy, and AOL Patch News. And here, too, but that was probably obvious. His twitter is @donaldtmccarthy and his website is donaldmccarthy.com.