If you were to watch David Lynch’s complete filmography from beginning to end, how would you see reality afterward? Video essayist Lewis Bond surely has some idea. As the creator of Channel Criswell, whose examinations of auteurs like Andrei Tarkovsky, Francis Ford Coppola, and Martin Scorsese we’ve previously featured here on Open Culture, he once released a meditation on what makes a Lynch film “Lynchian.” Now, under the new banner of The Cinema Cartography (and in partnership with film streaming service MUBI), Bond not only returns to the well of the Lynchian, but plunges in deeply enough to come up with The David Lynch Retrospective.
In two hours, this video essay makes a journey through all the dark recesses of Lynch’s feature filmography — a filmography that, admittedly, can at times seem made up of nothing but dark recesses. It begins in 1977 with Eraserhead, Lynch’s first full-length picture as well as his least remitting. However harrowing its biomechanical strangeness, that debut drew the eye of Hollywood, resulting in Lynch’s hiring to direct The Elephant Man, a chiaroscuro vision of the life of deformed 19th-century Englishman Joseph Merrick. There follows the infamous Dune, which finds Lynch at the helm (at least nominally) of a $40-million adaptation of Frank Herbert’s science-fiction epic, an extravagant mismatch as was ever made between director and material.
Bond mentions that he considered excluding Dune from The David Lynch Retrospective, seeing as the director himself has disowned the picture. Still, no Lynch enthusiast can deny that it brought him to the artistically uncompromising positions that have made the rest of his body of work what it is. But what, exactly, is it? Bond draws some possibilities from Blue Velvet, Lynch’s return to the art house whose memorably oneiric fusion of idyllic small-town America with sadism and voyeurism also functions as a statement of philosophical and aesthetic intent. Not that Lynch is given to statements, per se: as Bond emphasizes in a variety of ways, none of these works admit of direct explication, and this holds as true for the ultra-pastiche road movie Wild at Heart as it does for the split-personality neo-noir Lost Highway.
Then comes 1999’s The Straight Story, a movie about an old man who drives a tractor across the American Midwest to visit his brother. Bond frames the latter as the most Lynchian choice the director could have made, its seemingly thorough mundanity shedding light on his perception of cinema and reality itself. It also lowers the Lynch-filmography binge-watcher’s psychological defenses for the simultaneous Hollywood fantasy and nightmare to come, Mulholland Drive. Though Bond describes it as “the zenith of all that’s Lynchian,” not every fan agrees that it’s Lynch’s masterpiece: some opt for the impenetrable three-hour dose of pure Lynchianism (and cryptic sitcom rabbits) that is Inland Empire. Bond describes Inland Empire, still Lynch’s most recent feature, as “a torturous film, and this should be seen only as complimentary.” There speaks a true Lynchian.
Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the Substack newsletter Books on Cities, 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, on Facebook, or on Instagram.