David Lynch Presents the History of Surrealist Film (1987)

What living director has drawn the descriptor “surreal” more often than David Lynch? If you’ve seen, or rather experienced, a few of his films — particularly Eraserhead, Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr., or Inland Empire, or even the first half of his television series Twin Peaks — you know he’s earned it. Like any surrealist worth his salt, Lynch creates his own version of reality, with its own set of often unfathomable and inexplicably but emotionally and psychologically resonant qualities. In 1987, the year after his breakthrough Blue Velvet opened in theaters, the BBC apparently thought him enough of an authority on the matter of cinematic surrealism to enlist him to present an episode of Arena on the subject.

And so we’ve highlighted, just above in two parts, the fruit of their collaboration, with apologies for the straight-from-the-VHS quality of the video. (I just think of the slight muddledness as adding another welcome layer of unreality to the proceedings.)

Lynch’s duties on the broadcast include providing facts about the films and filmmakers excerpted throughout to tell the history of surrealist film. (He also provides several choice opinions, as when he calls Philadelphia “one of the sickest, most corrupt, decadent, fear-ridden cities that exists.”) We see bits and pieces of pictures like Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dali’s 1929 Un Chien Andalou (above), Jean Cocteau’s 1932 Blood of a Poet, Fernand Léger’s 1947 The Girl with the Prefabricated Heart, and Chris Marker’s 1962 La Jetée. Not only does Lynch contextualize them, he discusses their influence on his own work. Casual filmgoers who’ve caught a Lynch movie or two and taken them as the imaginings of an entertaining weirdo will, after watching this episode, come to understand how long a tradition they fit into — and they’ll no doubt want to see not just more of Lynch’s work, but his sources of inspiration as well. (They may, however, after hearing all he has to say here, still regard him as a weirdo.)

Related Content:

Watch Dreams That Money Can Buy, a Surrealist Film by Man Ray, Marcel Duchamp, Alexander Calder, Fernand Léger & Hans Richter

Un Chien Andalou: Revisiting Buñuel and Dalí’s Surrealist Film

The Hearts of Age: Orson Welles’ Surrealist First Film (1934)

The Seashell and the Clergyman: The World’s First Surrealist Film

Man Ray and the Cinéma Pur: Four Surrealist Films From the 1920s

David Lynch’s Surreal Commercials

Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on literature, film, cities, Asia, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los AngelesA Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall.


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  1. Howard says . . . | October 11, 2013 / 10:24 am

    As well as Luis Bunuel you could mention Alan Resnais’ L’Annu00e9e derniu00e8re u00e0 Marienbad, and Andrei Tarkovsky

  2. sezaar says . . . | October 11, 2013 / 1:41 pm

    The first surrealist film was Un Chien andalou according to the pope of the surrealists Andru00e9 Breton. La Coquille et le clergyman was not considered to be a surrealist movie.

  3. David J. Russell says . . . | October 18, 2013 / 5:47 pm

    David Lynch

  4. MIKE says . . . | June 6, 2014 / 4:26 am

    The second half of Twin Peaks is more surreal than the first since Cooper ends up vanishing in the middle of a forest to enter the Black Lodge.

  5. Alex says . . . | July 21, 2014 / 6:12 am

    I think the writer of the article only mentioned the “first half” of Twin Peaks because the show does slip into a sense of semi-normalcy after Laura’s killer is revealed. But I agree that the final episode of the series with the Black Lodge sequence trumps the entirety of season one in terms of surrealism.

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