The Surreal Filmmaking of David Lynch Explained in 9 Video Essays

The internet is full of people who don’t understand David Lynch movies: some ask for appreciation assistance on Quora, others defend their distaste on Reddit, and others still simply declare both the filmmaker and his fans a lost cause. But the internet is also full of people who, whether they claim to understand them or not, genuinely love David Lynch movies, and some of them make video essays explaining, or at least shedding additional light on, just what makes the seemingly inscrutable likes of EraserheadBlue VelvetMulholland Drive, and the television series Twin Peaks (as well as Lynch’s less-acclaimed projects) such high cinematic achievements.

The latest, “David Lynch — The Elusive Subconscious,” comes from Lewis Bond’s Channel Criswell, the source for video essays on Andrei Tarkovsky, Yasujiro Ozu, Stanley Kubrick, Akira Kurosawa, and the horror genre previously featured here on Open Culture. It includes a clip of Charlie Rose asking Lynch himself the meaning of the word “Lynchian.” The director’s reply: “I haven’t got a clue. When you’re inside of it, you can’t see it.”

Bond looks for Lynchian by diving right in, finding how Lynch’s movies go about their signature work of “producing the unfamiliarity in that which was once familiar” by using just the right kinds of vagueness, ambiguity, incompleteness, inconsistency, unpredictability, and dualism in their images, sounds and stories to produce just the right kinds of doubt, fear, and distress in their characters and viewers alike.

A further definition of the Lynchian comes in “What is ‘Lynchian’?” by Fandor’s Kevin B. Lee, which adapts a section of film critic and Lynch scholar Dennis Lim’s David Lynch: The Man from Another Place. It, too, draws on an episode of Charlie Rose, though not any of Lynch’s appearances at the table but David Foster Wallace’s. “What the really great artists do is, they’re entirely themselves,” Wallace says in response to a question about his interest in Lynch’s work. “They’ve got their own vision, their own way of fracturing reality, and if it’s authentic and true, you will feel it in your nerve endings. And this is what Blue Velvet did for me.”

Wallace had appeared on the show ostensibly to promote his essay collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, which contains the expanded version of “David Lynch Keeps His Head,” the 1996 Premiere magazine article that took him to the set of Lost Highway and on the intellectual mission of pinning down what, exactly, gives Lynch’s work at its best so much and so strange a power. Lee, via Lim, quotes Wallace’s working definition of “Lynchian,” which for many fans remains the best anyone has ever come up with: that it “refers to a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter.”

As one of the most visually oriented of all living filmmakers, Lynch expresses this particular kind of irony much less in words than in imagery, specifically the kind of imagery that viewers describe in terms of dreams — and not always the good kind. “Beautiful Nightmares: David Lynch’s Collective Dream” by Indiewire’s Nelson Carvajal gathers some of the elements of Lynch’s visions: the dancing, the picket-fence domesticity, the red curtains, the blondes, the creepy stares, the disfigurement, the voyeurism. “I grew up in the northwest, in a very, very beautiful world,” says Lynch, fairly summing up the experience of his own movies in the video’s only spoken words. “A lot of my life has been discovering this strange sickness. It’s got a fascination to me. I love the idea of going into something and discovering a world, being able to watch it and experience it. It’s a disturbing thing, because it’s a trip beneath a beautiful surface, but to a fairly uneasy interior.”

Several of Lynch’s techniques come in for more thorough analysis in a trilogy of video essays Andreas Halskov made for the Danish film-studies journal 16:9“Between Two Worlds” deals with the host of “competing moods, genres and tonalities” that manifest in each one of his films and produce “an ambivalent or uncanny experience on the part of the viewer.” “What’s the Frequency, David?” explores the presence in Lynch’s work of “noise and faulty wiring, hiccups and miscommunication,” and “electronic devices that don’t work,” all of which illustrate “the constant battle between the conscious and the unconscious world” so important to his stories. “Moving Pictures” identifies the influence of painters like René Magritte, Francis Bacon, Edward Hopper, Vilhelm Hammershøi, and Salvador Dalí on Lynch who, having started out as a painter himself, begins his films not with stories but images and builds them from there.

Whatever has influenced Lynch’s movies, Lynch’s movies have exerted plenty of influence of their own. Critic Pauline Kael called Lynch “the first popular surrealist,” and with that popularity has come an integration of his brand of surrealism into the wider cinematic zeitgeist. Jacob T. Swinney’s “Not Directed By David Lynch” cuts together five minutes’ worth of especially Lynchian moments from other directors’ movies over the past quarter-century, a formidable selection including Adrian Lyne’s Jacob’s Ladder, Darren Aronofsky’s Pi and Requiem for a Dream, Richard Kelly’s Donnie Darko, Gaspar Noé’s Irréversible and Jonathan Glazer’s Under the Skin.

But while some filmmakers have consciously or unconsciously drawn inspiration from or paid homage to Lynch, other filmmakers have tried to cash in on the popularity of his style in much less creative ways. Or at least so argues “David Lynch’s Lost Highway as a Commentary on Other Directors” by Jeff Keeling, a video essay that puts Lynch’s 1997 neo-noir up against a few other pieces of film and television that came out in the years preceding it, especially the Oliver Stone-directed feature Natural Born Killers and the Oliver Stone-produced series Wild Palms. Pointing out the numerous ways in which Lynch references the too-direct borrowings that Stone and others had recently made from his own work, Keeling not unconvincingly frames Lost Highway as, among other things, a cinematic j’accuse.

Though poorly reviewed upon its original release, Lost Highway has put together a decent following in the nearly two decades since. But whatever acclaim it now draws can’t compare to the praise lavished upon Lynch’s 2001 television-pilot-turned-feature-film Mulholland Drive, which a BBC critics poll recently named the best movie of the 21st century so far. In Mulholland Drive: How Lynch Manipulates You,” Evan Puschak, better known as the Nerdwriter, breaks down how it subverts the expectations we’ve developed through moviegoing itself, one of the storytelling strategies Lynch uses to make this particular tale of death, sex, Hollywood, the sudden loss of identity (and, needless to say, a platinum-haired ingenue, menacing heavies, and a mysterious dwarf) so very compelling indeed.

If, however, none of these video essays get you believing in Lynch as a creative genius, then you’ll surely enjoy a hearty laugh with Joe McClean’s “How to Make a David Lynch Film,” a short but elaborate satire of the tropes of Lynchianism presented as an instructional film — made in the style of Lynch’s beloved 1950s — inside the setting of Lost Highway. Its commandments, many of which overlap in one way or another with the points made in the analytical video essays higher above, include “Start by having dramatic pauses between every line of dialogue,” “There must be ominous music or sounds in every scene,” “When in doubt, add close-ups of lips and eyes,” and “There should be nudity for absolutely no reason.” (The video contains some potentially NSFW content, though only in service of parodying the NSFW content of Lynch’s movies themselves.)

“I watch David Lynch movies and I just don’t understand them,” writes McClean. “I decided I was going to try and figure them out so I stapled my eyes open and had a Lynch-a-thon. It didn’t help. I thought if I forced myself to watch, at some point it would just click and it would all make since. That never happened.” But perhaps he tried too hard to understand them, rather than not enough. Lynch, in the words of Lewis Bond, “intentionally misguides our perceptions through offering plots that embrace a subconscious manner of storytelling. Our expectations so often go unfulfilled in his movies because he shows that we expect so much from life, yet know so little.”

Related Content:

A Young David Lynch Talks About Eraserhead in One of His First Recorded Interviews (1979)

The Incredibly Strange Film Show: Revisit 1980s Documentaries on David Lynch, John Waters, Alejandro Jodorowsky & Other Filmmakers

David Lynch Presents the History of Surrealist Film (1987)

An Introduction to Jean-Luc Godard’s Innovative Filmmaking Through Five Video Essays

A Complete Collection of Wes Anderson Video Essays

Four Video Essays Explain the Mastery of Filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami (RIP)

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer, the video series The City in Cinema, the crowdfunded journalism project Where Is the City of the Future?, and the Los Angeles Review of Books’ Korea Blog. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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  • Johnny Bravo says:

    This is still not all of it. Even though there are 9 video essays, most of them focus on the same areas. What about the story? The duplicity of the characters? The common red/blue scenareos?

    I’d like to see something about the script of his movies, and how the internal structure of it is built. 2 separate stories overlapped in the same. Can both original stories be separated? Is that even important?

    I think Lynch is a perfect example of how form is content.



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