What I Learned Watching (almost) All Movies by David Lynch

This particular story starts in London back in 2003. In fact we might expect more than one story unfolding from that same moment but let us not rush the events up. Instead I suggest picturing the headquarters of The Guardian where someone smart suddenly comes up with an idea of shortlisting The World’s Best Directors. Soon afterwards The Seven Film Critics form a circle and the magic — the list of 40 directors who push the art of movies forward — is born.

I am far from claiming that me discovering The List is the second most important event since its inception. But truth be told I have found myself in the place I’d never imagine going. Intrigued, I decided to allow The List define my choice of movies. And that is how I ended up watching (almost) all movies by David Lynch.

In two words I’d describe my experience as mind-boggling and disturbing. But as eloquent as Lynch is I believe more thorough explanation is in order.

Disclaimer: I’m not wasting our time neither synapsing the movies nor giving my “general impressions” about every single one of them. Instead I intend sharing what they call “key findings on the way”. And yes, spoilers alert!

The Researcher’s Background:

Before starting out with this trip I had only watched one movie by David Lynch — Mulholland Drive. It impressed me a great deal but left me puzzled for years. As for Twin Peaks I have to admit that back in 90’s I mistook it for a soap opera and thus completely ignored. Looking back — I should have known better.

The Description of Experiment:

I tried sticking to chronological order of the full-length movies directed by David Lynch as provided by IMDB. Shorts and misc videos are not really my thing. So I’ve allowed myself to skip them through.

The final order looked like this:

  1. Blue Velvet (1986)
  2. The Elephant Man (1980)
  3. Dune (1984)
  4. Twin Peaks. TV Series, 30 episodes (1990–1991)
  5. Twin Peaks. Fire Walk With Me (1992)
  6. Wild At Heart (1990)
  7. Lost Highway (1997)
  8. Mulholland Drive (2001)
  9. Rabbits (2002)*
  10. Inland Empire (2006)**
  11. The Straight Story (1999)***
  12. Eraserhead (1977)
  13. Twin Peaks: The Missing Pieces (2014)

*endured 15 minutes total

**endured about an hour

***watched about 30 minutes and then >16x>>

The Findings

It is fair to say that every one of us more or less sticks to his/her own narrative. Ultimate story-tellers, we often grasp “the meaning of random life events” only upon putting them into a sequence. And with Lynch’s legacy that seems to be the case, too. Even during phase one (Blue Velvet, The Elephant Man and Dune) it became apparent that Lynch has the list of his “things” — minor details and major subject matters — that keep re-occurring in his movies. The casting choices (sticking to his “favorite” actors over and over again) contribute a lot to such interconnectedness, too.

1.Dreams

One needs not watching everything by David Lynch to understand that dreams make the single most important territory he keeps on exploring and re-visiting.

In Blue Velvet Raymond (a brothel keeper) sings a song about dreams, Frank (the villain) inhales morphine through his mask (and what other drug has “sleep” in its name?), Jeffrey (Kyle MacLahlan) lays down to sleep when events took over him. In The Elephant Man John Merrick has visions/dreams about his mother, wishes to “just sleep” and eventually dies in his sleep. In Dune Lynch is all too obvious: “The sleeper must awaken”, “A dream unfolds” — these phrases are the plot’s cornerstones.

Then goes Twin Peaks. Generally, the whole story is all about two worlds (dreams and reality) mutually intervening and altering one another. But there are “minor” mentions of dreams, too. For instance, many revelations come to Agent Cooper in his sleep (including the “stones and bottles” experiment).

Wild At Heart is all too curious case for it seems to be the only movie by Lynch where he diverts from “dreams inspired” scenario. Or have I missed something?

In Lost Highway Fred (saxophone player) claims he cannot sleep. Short afterwards the metamorphosis Fred -> Pete happens (most likely in his sleep too).

No other movie by David Lynch is as dreams-centered as Mulholland Drive. First of all, the action is placed in Hollywood — the Dream Factory itself. Lynch hints about powerful men controlling the movie industry (and hence — our dreamland) and makes a movie director, Adam, the main antagonist. And it all boils down to realization that the first part of the story is nothing but Diane’s dream (perhaps the last one she sees before she dies).

When two worlds (reality and dreams) appear to be more or less mapped out, Lynch attempts creating multiple worlds in his final (to date) full-length movie Inland Empire. Once again he pictures the movie studio, addresses folklore world (this time Polish) and god knows what else — I could only endure it for 60 minutes out of total 180. Maybe I’ll revisit it after watching the 3rd season of Twin Peaks (which is currently in post-production).

The last in my watch list was Eraserhead — ironically the very first movie Lynch created. Had I started my experiment there it might as well be the end to it :) But putting aside the plot of this highly-disturbing calamity I’ve managed to spot Lynch’s first step into Dreamland: Bobby’s brutal nightmare.

2. Fear and Instincts

If dreams (or more broadly — the sub- conscious) form the first most important theme for David Lynch, the main drivers of sub- consciousness (fear and instinct) are his second most favored thing. Oftentimes he chooses to portray the most basic fear (that of body deformations) and the most basic instincts (the sex and violence) to keep it simple.

A human ear chopped off with scissors (Blue Velvet), extreme body deformity and circus freaks (The Elephant Man), ears and eyes sewn (Dune), pimples on Baron’s face (Dune) — they all aim at provoking disgust and urge to vomit. But for me the premature “baby” and worm-like creatures in Erasorhead (as well as other pleasantries such as face and body deformations) are the heights of such intention. In Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive Lynch is way more subtle — only giants, dwarfs and wheel-chaired Mr.Roque. In Wild at Heart Bobby’s teeth are well worth mentioning while in Lost Highway that would be Pete’s deformed face short after his metamorphosis.

In filming sex scenes Lynch has always been masterful though his accents shift over time. In Eraserhead “ sexual intercourse” is off-screen but leads to “premature baby” being born. On-screen sex between Bobby and femme fatale (who happens to be his neighbour) takes place in a milky dream. Blue Velvet presents brutal sex scenes with Dorothy. Jeffrey is also almost raped by Frank. It is similar to violent intrusion of a crowd into John Merrick’s room (The Elephant Man) and Lady Jessica being almost brutalized by one of the guards in Dune.

By all means the most overwhelming sexual violence happens in Twin Peaks (Laura Palmer being raped and murdered by her possessed father).

Wild at Heart is somewhat pornographic but non-violent. There is also no shortage of beautiful sex scenes in Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive (which was quite provocative at its time showing two women having sex).

3. Miscellaneous

These are random similarities that help linking various movies into a single narrative. These are also “tricks” that travel from one movie into another for the sake of visual and contextual consistency.

For instance the iconic Black Lodge pattern from Twin Peaks first appears as early as in Eraserhead. The same is true about the horn sound that accompanies almost all scenes with sawmill in Twin Peaks. But Lynch first introduces it in Eraserhead. The curtains (as the borderline between worlds) appear in Eraserhead, Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive.

Signs and numbers. In Blue Vlevet street signs, “Deep River Apartments”, “Allies” sign on trucks appear to have meaning. In Twin Peaks we deal with Native Americans petroglyphs as well as with letters under fingernails that come of the name “Robert”. In Muholland Drive street signs and name tags help bridging the gap between dreams and reality. In Inland Empire numbers 4 and 7 that appear on the walls of movie pavilions reflect the name of the folk tale.

Black coffee. It keeps re-appearing in the movies (especially in Twin Peaks, Inland Empire and Mulholland Drive) as a natural antidote for sleep and thus the dreams. Anytime Lynch wants his characters back in reality he serves them good old black coffee.

Keys and boxes. In Twin Peaks they say that fear is the key. So it might as well be a part of Lynch’s symbolic language. But puzzle boxes (black in Twin Peaks, blue in Mulholland Drive) and the keys to them do matter.

The Sript. It is vital in movie/dream world analogy (in Mulholland Drive they also say that “everything is pre-recorded” in Silencio). In Inland Empire actress Nikki Grace said that “it is like a line from our script” and then started sliding down into surreal.

Duality. Lynch loves this trick and never hesitates to utilize it. Duality of worlds, duality of a mirror, duality of characters. Metamorphosis in Lost Highway, Betty/Diane duality in Mulholland Drive (which is the main key towards understanding the movie), duality of main actors in Inland Empire and of course the parade of dualities in Twin Peaks: Leland/Bob, Good Dale/Bob, Mike/Man From Another Place.

Dogs. They too keep popping (pupping?) up. They bark in Eraserhead (and then comes a bitch with a litter), English bulldog wanders the streets of London in The Elephant Man, Paul (Kyle MacLahlan) owns a pug in Dune. Still the true meaning of these appearences remains unclear.


The Resume

Having completed this experiment the researcher (yours truly) found herself balancing on the edge of meaningfulness. Turns out they have a word for it — apophenia (the human tendency to perceive meaningful patterns within random data). But I guess this is the path David Lynch has laid for anyone curious (and nerdy) enough to follow his steps. After all the Dreamland is still a hostile place but all too attractive especially to those tired of living in a polished bubble of reality.