What Makes a David Lynch Film Lynchian: A Video Essay

As soon as it began airing on ABC in the early 1990s, Twin Peaks got us wondering where its distinctively resonant oddness, never before felt on the airwaves of prime-time television, could have come from. Some viewers had already seen co-creator David Lynch’s films Eraserhead and Blue Velvet and may thus have had a more developed feel for it, but for everyone else the nature and origin of the “Lynchian” — as critics soon began labeling it — remained utterly mysterious. Now, with the long-awaited Twin Peaks: The Return having completed its own run, we’ve started thinking about it once again.

What does the Lynchian look like from the vantage of the 21st century? David Foster Wallace, in an essay on Lynch’s Lost Highway twenty years ago, defined the term “Lynchian” as referring 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.” Lewis Bond, the video essayist who runs the Youtube channel Channel Criswell, goes a bit deeper in “David Lynch – The Elusive Subconscious.” What is it, he asks, that denotes the style of Lynch? “The same way a hallway sinking into darkness is Lynchian, so is a white picket fence in a slice of Americana.”

These and the enormous variety of other things Lynchian must “exude elusiveness, and the enigma of what signifies Lynchian sensibilities lies in producing unfamiliarity in that which was once familiar.”At first glance, that statement may seem as obscure as some of Lynch’s creative choices do when you first witness them. But spend a few minutes with Bond’s wide-ranging video essay, taking in Lynch’s images at the same time as the analysis, and you’ll get a clearer sense of what both of them are going for. After examining Lynch’s use of the subconscious in his films from several different angles, Bond arrives at Pauline Kael‘s description of the filmmaker as “the first populist surrealist.”

“Although his work is puzzling, and more often than not intended to be so,” says Bond, Lynch “still manages to strike a chord with the way we feel.” Lynch, in other words, puts dreams on the screen, but instead of simply relating the inventions of his own subconscious — hearing someone retell their dreams being, after all, a byword for an agonizingly boring experience — he somehow gets all of us to dream them ourselves. What haunts us when we wake up after a particularly harrowing night also haunts us when we come out of a Lynch movie, but the artistry of the latter has a way of making us want to plunge right back into the nightmare again.

Related Content:

“The Art of David Lynch”— How Rene Magritte, Edward Hopper & Francis Bacon Influenced David Lynch’s Cinematic Vision

Watch an Epic, 4-Hour Video Essay on the Making & Mythology of David Lynch’s Twin Peaks

An Animated David Lynch Explains Where He Gets His Ideas

What Does “Kafkaesque” Really Mean? A Short Animated Video Explains

What “Orwellian” Really Means: An Animated Lesson About the Use & Abuse of the Term

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.


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  • Martin Cohen says:

    We are now living in a Lynchian world as our reality.

    Is Lynch still necessary?

  • Lorena says:

    I feel we are actually living in a Philip-K-Dickian” world instead. It’s harder and harder to distinguish between real life and virtual (i.e. web-connected) one.
    Lynch is trying to grab something inside our inner desires. May he always be welcome, at least I know I still am a human being. :-)

  • Adam says:

    I agree with the PKD comparison but feel they approach the same theme (what does it mean to have a human experience?) in their own ways. While PKD used literature as his medium to question the validity of our subjective consciousness, Lynch uses the world images and abstract forms to make the case that “the owls are not what they seem.”

    I find both artists have inspired me to expand my consciousness beyond the parameters of our culture so I can see not only the outer world more clearly, but also my inner world. I am deeply indebted to both artists.

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