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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