Sunday, June 11, 2017

Movie Musing: The (sur)real appeal of David Lynch

It is like he's trying to tell us something...
A friend of mine once called Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me one of the most bloated and pretentious films he’d ever seen. Being a big fan of David Lynch’s work I had to disagree with him. But the thing is, I completely understand why he feels that way.

At the risk of sounding pretentious myself (I know, way too late for that), David Lynch’s films are not for everyone. I think the angry reaction that comes from many viewers toward his films is that they feel stupid for not understanding the film. I don’t think it is David Lynch’s intent to make anyone feel stupid. All the interviews I’ve ever read or seen show a man who is not full of himself, or thinking he is God’s gift to film. He seems like a genuine guy who has a very particular (and peculiar) outlook on life. The thing is, there are two key elements to David Lynch that explain his film making techniques. He distrusts words and he loves mysteries

What are words for?

I don't think Henry is quite sure what it all means either.
David Lynch was a painter before he was a filmmaker. It was out of a desire to make one of his paintings move that he picked up a camera. Lynch comes from a background of visual arts first, and often speaks of his inability to articulate concepts using words. He feels that words often diminish things, especially emotions. To Lynch only a gifted poet or lyricist can do them true justice.

This means that Lynch doesn’t put any particular weight into the actual words his characters are saying. The script is a framework and source for the ideas the film will become. It is not the end product. To paraphrase Lynch, if the script was the end product then you could release that and be done with it.

One of the strangest conversations in sci-fi cinema.
Things start with the script, but Lynch will often allow his actors to improvise, suggest other courses of action or reaction and even take accidents that occur on the set and turn them into key moments in his film. The character of Killer BOB in Twin Peaks only occurred because of a series of accidents during filming. Frank Silva happened to be reflected in a mirror during filming a crucial scene and Lynch used that as the kernel for creating this abstraction of a character.

So if Lynch isn’t concerned about keeping to the script, how is he approaching filmmaking? His background as a painter means that he focuses on visuals first. Lynch has a very particular way of lighting scenes, staging them and using framing and camera movement. He deals in visual contrasts, often with shadows and colors. Most scenes in a Lynch film are set up to have some kind of visual impact, or to hint at a mood.

One hell of a road trip, or a road trip into hell?
Mood is the key word for David Lynch. More important than the words being spoken is the mood the scene creates, the emotions that are running underneath. Lynch uses his actors, set and camera work to create the mood and atmospheres he is going for. He uses pacing and editing to continue to develop those feelings. Lynch’s films can move at a slow pace, but often this is done to create a feeling of unease or tension. There will be strange pauses in conversation, giving the viewer the feeling that something isn’t right.

Something is about to go very wrong.
Another key element of his films is the approach to sound. With Eraserhead (and his student films before) sound is used to create atmospheres and textures in the world of the film. Lynch wants the sounds to evoke feelings and tensions on their own and building on the performances and visuals. Lynch isn’t going for realism – ever. All of his films occur in their own worlds, dreamworlds maybe, that have their own feel. He is working with fiction and is using all the tools in his command to put you into that fiction.

The final key element is the music. Lynch loves music and uses it to great effect in his films. Perhaps his most successful use of score and songs is for the stories set in Twin Peaks. The score by Angelo Badalementi is so unique and specific to that place that you couldn’t mistake it for anything else. Add to that the songs performed by Julee Cruise and it adds to the idea that Twin Peaks is a fleshed out place.

Definitely one hell of a road trip.
One thing I rarely hear commented about when it comes to music in a David Lynch film is his ability to pick just the right song for just the right moment. He is up there with Martin Scorsese and Quentin Tarantino in that regard. In Twin Peaks you have Julee Cruise’s ethereal voice. But Blue Velvet takes Roy Orbison’s In Dreams and turns it into nightmare fuel. I love David Bowie’s voice in the darkness singing how he is Deranged during the opening credits to Lost Highway. Even something as odd as taking Roy Orbison’s Crying translating it into Spanish and having Rebekah Del Rio belt it out a cappella fits that key scene in Mulholland Drive so perfectly, I can’t imagine it any other way. Lynch really understands how these songs can act beyond the surface needs of a scene and provide additional layers to the film.

A phone call you don't want to get.
All these things feel effortless when you watch a David Lynch film, and yet they are all carefully managed, as much as the performances from his cast. But because he puts so much care into each of these, and combines them with his focus on visuals he crafts something that we just don’t see too much of in big budget Hollywood films – mood and atmosphere.

Because Lynch doesn’t trust words to deliver what he wants in a scene, he relies heavily on creating and manipulating the mood of scenes. That is why a character can be saying one thing, but the deep rumble just barely audible to us, the way the shadows are oozing into the frame and the way the curtain is moving slightly behind her and those too ruby red lips all point to something else, something hidden and secret.

Mysteries of Love?

You want to see the man behind the mask?
David Lynch was once asked why he used so much black in his paintings. He said that he loves shadows and darkness because you can suggest something without really showing it. It creates a mystery and the person looking at the art will want to solve it.

Most of Lynch films work on the same principle. They all have some kind of mystery at the core and Lynch invites you to step up and dive into the mystery. He suggests many things using all the elements of filmmaking. But he trusts his viewers to absorb and feel the film, and to enjoy the dark mysteries within.

Is that really a mystery you want to uncover?
From Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me forward, Lynch’s films seem to be about simple personal issues. For example you could say that Lost Highway is the exploration of a man whose anger and jealousy drive him to terrible acts and that the film pushes deep into his mind as he tries to sort out how he could have allowed those feelings to destroy everything around him. It is the way Lynch tells that simple story that makes it more interesting, and I’d argue more impactful.

As a viewer you are actively participating in the film. You are taking in those moods created by visuals, sounds and music. You are untangling the mystery. You are participating in the film. Because of that, the film can then strike deeper than a more traditional narrative. Fire Walk with Me deals with such dark and disturbing things and it really hits me each time I watch it. I always wonder at how strong that reaction is, when you look at the surface elements of the film it can seem like a mess. But fused together all those things create a very haunting film.

I like to remember things in my own way…

Agent Cooper and Audrey with some coffee talk.
Of course, the mystery element doesn’t work for everyone. The clues that Lynch leaves in his movies come across like taunts. The performances seem too bizarre to be relatable. The artificial nature of the lighting, the pacing and the music annoy instead of attract. Some people just find the whole exercise as futile at best and frustrating at worst.

I think the logical mind starts demanding that symbolism and narrative have clear structures and goals. Logic is black and white. No room for suggestion.

If you understand that Lynch is going for that then you might be more open to his approach. I see many people say his work doesn’t make any sense. But I disagree. His films follow a path. It may not be recognizable at first, but it is one that you feel not think about. You follow the moods and emotions of the scenes, not the structure of the script. You start to see patterns in his images, in his music, in his scenes. You start to see that strange acting choices Naomi Watts makes in one part of Mulholland Drive make sense with what happens after she opens that blue box near the end of the film.

Trapped in an abstraction? The color blue may be a key.
You also have to understand that Lynch uses characters he calls “abstractions”. These characters are often unique in appearance and speech. The score and sounds cape will change when they are around. These are not actual human characters, but usually some kind of physical manifestation of an emotion or inner conflict. Lynch has been using them since Eraserhead and often they can add a layer of confusion to the narrative because they seem like they walked in from a dream.

Going deeper into the Inland Empire.
I love the surreal touch the “abstractions” add to his films. It is one of the big draws to me in regards to David Lynch’s style. Very few people can execute that uncanny dream style like Lynch does. His films feel like anything is possible, because there is an element of uncertainly to them. It was one of the reasons I was disappointed to the dream worlds created by Nolan in Inception, they were too structured, too clean. Dreams are messy filled with mystery and uncertainty.

So I get why some people don’t like his work. That’s fine. I just get annoyed when they write it off as pretentious and nonsensical. There is meaning in his films, they are trying to make us feel something and understand something, and they are using nontraditional methods to do that, because to Lynch the impact is greater if the message isn’t delivered by words, but by getting you to feel what the characters are feeling. If the approach doesn’t work for you, that’s fine. But don’t slam it because of that.

The Sleeper has Awoken

Dream or abstraction? Maybe both...
One more thing I love about David Lynch’s films is seeing the craft on display. When I see a filmmaker who not only understands all the tools at his disposal, but uses all of them and with such skill I can’t help but be impressed. I also love the mysteries he presents in his films. I want to go down those rabbit holes and dig into the moods and atmospheres as well as his eclectic characters. He captures the feeling of a dream world and dream logic that I have rarely experienced in film. That feeling of the uncanny, the familiar but alien, is something that seems easy to pull off when Lynch does it.

So, yeah, David Lynch is making art films. But I don’t think he’s trying to confuse or aggravate people. He is telling stories in a unique way and one that I find completely absorbing and intriguing. That is why I have a space for him on my shelf right next to other filmmakers I admire like Kurosawa, Spielberg, Kon, Fincher and Miyazaki.

Enjoy this musing? Click an ad and support this blog.


  1. With David Lynch you never know… change that second person to first: I never know. Reality, fantasy, and dreams don’t have border fences in his movies; when seeing his images on the screen, I may not know which of those it is or from the perspective of which character. I like much of his stuff including Blue Velvet and Wild at Heart and even Dune though his more surreal films leave me with one eyebrow raised. Nonetheless I kind of get it – rather like I kind of get improvisational jazz even though it really isn’t my first choice to put on the stereo. We don’t experience the world entirely as it is; we experience it in our heads. Lynch films that about as well as anyone.

    Also, his characters are usually well motivated. It makes perfect sense (warped sense, but sense) in Blue Velvet, for example, that Dorothy would force Jeffrey to abuse her after Frank did – at least this time it is her idea and she wields the lethal power. Jeffrey finds the dark side of himself to do it, but (because he is not Frank) feels guilty about finding it.

    Lynch isn’t always my cup of tea, but there’s no reason he should be. In the arts, as in so much else nowadays, an irksome (ultimately narcissistic) tendency to conflate I-don’t-care-for-this with This-is-idiotic-bullshit has grown far too commonplace. Only sometimes are the two related. De gustibus and all that.

    1. I need to revisit "Blue Velvet". It has been quite some time since I've seen the film. But I remember thinking the same thing - that in a strange way all three of those characters needed to meet and experience each other. As sick as it sounds, it does make sense why they do the things they do.

      But man does that movie rub people the wrong way. :)

      "Wild at Heart" is a blast. Maybe one of Lynch's most lighthearted pieces. And man the energy in that movie. Lynch takes the fire motif and runs with it.

  2. Yeah, I'd agree. I feel we get enough homogenized, spoon fed movies so having someone removed from that edict is good. However, having said that Lynch and some of the other directors you have listed near the end are often admired by critics or someone that is looking for a bit more. Spielberg often hits within the mainstream at times, but he's also done films not quite fitting that structure. I might add Cronenberg to that list, along with Jarmusch, Villeneuve, Kubrick, Coen brothers, and many others. But Lynch may be high on that acquired taste spectrum--even Roger Ebert had a dislike for him as far as Blue Velvet. I'm not sure what of he thought of his later films.

    If you've ever seen any of Lynch's art, it is pretty dark, and often just as puzzling, but highly skilled. He's one of those artist that can cross boundaries from one medium to the other. I like those guys.

    1. I need to explore more Jarmusch films. But Cronenberg is certainly one of those directors I usually enjoy no matter what he does. I love his approach to storytelling and his stranger stuff always gets me thinking. "Videodrome" is one hell of a film.

      Villeneuve looks to be following a similar track so I'm certainly excited to see more from him.