David Lynch

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)

(Criterion Streaming, December 2019) Because I’m a sucker for punishment and the life of a movie reviewer is meaningless without pointless challenges, I started watching Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me completely cold. I knew it was a follow-up to a TV show which I hadn’t seen, I knew it was classic David Lynch even though I don’t particularly like classic David Lynch, and I made no effort to brush up on the Twin Peaks mythology even though I knew that it got strange. To say that I was confused is putting it mildly. Halfway through Fire Walk with Me, as the film switched from off-beat cop comedy to something far more sinister, I gave up and pulled up the Wikipedia plot summary, links to the Twin Peaks storyline and whatever other hand-holding I could stand. My watching experience improved significantly after that, although I was pleasantly surprised that Fire Walk with Me is generally self-sufficient if you learn how to ignore the weirder moments. There is a definite story being told here, even through the pointless digressions, leisurely pacing, and awkward insertion of characters who, I’m presuming, pop up from the TV show. I even enjoyed some moments of the film—mainly the first fifteen minutes, with its deadpan depiction of two policemen venturing in hostile territory for an investigation. There is a sequence featuring a dancing woman (and later interpretation) that pokes fun at Lynch’s own propensity for hermetic symbolism, and it does feel like a welcome bit of comedy in an otherwise increasingly tragic film. Lynch isn’t my cup of tea, obviously, but to end Fire Walk with Me with a virtual draw rather than outright loathing can be called a bit of a victory for both of us. On the other hand, I’m nowhere closer to even wanting to watch the TV show in either its original 1990s seasons or recent revival edition. There are pointless challenges, and then there are masochistic endeavours.

Dune (1984)

Dune (1984)

(Second or Third Viewing, On Blu Ray, September 2019) At least two generations of Science Fiction fans have now commented at length on David Lynch’s Dune, and it’s easy to take cheap shots at the result. As an adaptation to one of the most widely read, widely known best-selling SF novels of all time, this is a film that sets itself up for failure: There’s no way a mere two-hours-and-seventeen-minute film could do justice to a densely packed 500-page novel that launched a mythology that barely fits on a single shelf. That holds even true considering how inwardly focused the novel can be, with complex conspiracies, duelling factions, sweeping galactic events and subtleties on top of subtleties. In fact, considering the nature of the source material, I’d say that Lynch’s version does quite well with what it brings to the screen. The special effects are not particularly good by today’s standards (and there are a lot of them), but the set design and costumes remain effective, and the sheer ambition of the film does create some amount of sympathy. Of course, I’m not exactly looking at Dune without a healthy dose of nostalgic wonder—I watched the film once or twice as a teenager and I credit it with what was necessary to read the novel. (It’s a great novel, one of my favourites, but it’s not a bad idea to have pictures in your mind to understand who’s who and what’s what.)  If the film seems a bit crazy and over-the-top as a middle-aged adult, it’s a good kind of crazy and over-the-top. Even when it doesn’t quite succeed, when it looks silly, when it clearly bites off more than it can chew, it’s still wonderfully ambitious. The cast is an amazing mixture of generations of actors (I mean: super-young Virginia Madsen alongside super-old José Ferrer, with various pop-culture icons such as Sting, Patrick Stewart, Sean Young, Kyle MacLachlan and Linda Hunt? That’s wild.) That remains interesting even when the film gets caught up in the mechanics of the plot and gadgets it shows on-screen. Dune escapes the question of whether it’s good or bad—it’s a good thing that it exists, flaws and all.

The Elephant Man (1980)

The Elephant Man (1980)

(On Cable TV, October 2017) My rule of thumb for David Lynch is that the more conventional his movies get, the better I like them. (The Straight Story and The Elephant Man would suggest that some sentimentality also helps, but Dune doesn’t really fit in that pattern.)  In any case, The Elephant Man is only grotesque on the surface, as a horribly deformed man (John Hurt, justifiably unrecognizable) is taken in by a benevolent doctor (a very young Anthony Hopkins, looking unusually dashing with a black beard), revealing his sensitive nature to Victorian-era London even as some people can’t see past appearances. There is a strong sympathy here for the marginal protagonist of the story, and it’s that sympathy that carries through the movie even as the lead character gets kidnapped, abused, insulted and wounded. It ends beautifully (if tragically), which wasn’t a given considering the dour nature of the humans in the story. The Elephant Man isn’t perfect: there’s quite a bit of manipulation in hiding the protagonist’s true nature for a long time before the end of the first act, and it’s best not to dig too deep in the real events that inspired the film. On the other hand, it’s a more effective Lynch film because it is grounded more strongly in reality, which doesn’t preclude some pointed questions about human nature and motives. The re-creation of Victorian London is evocative, and the direction has its moments of interest. While I’m not going to pretend that I liked the film more than I did, it does come as an antidote to my recent viewing of Eraserhead, and I couldn’t be more grateful.

Eraserhead (1977)

Eraserhead (1977)

(On Cable TV, October 2017) It is with some satisfaction that I report that really disliked Eraserhead. After all, that’s exactly what I was expecting: I don’t do surrealism and I generally don’t like (or get) much of writer/director David Lynch’s work, so why would this one be any different? The movie itself doesn’t care all that much about whether people like it—advancing at its own glacial pace through nightmarish body-horror thankfully filmed in black-and-white, Eraserhead is a bad dream put on-screen, with minimal plot and maximal non-sequiturs. The themes of parenting anxiety are clear enough, but I can’t be bothered to decode the rest when I care so little about the result. I’m satisfied that, having seen it, I can remove it from my list of films to see and that’s about it. 

Blue Velvet (1986)

Blue Velvet (1986)

(On Cable TV, January 2017) I have resigned myself to the fact that David Lynch and I will never enjoy a harmonious filmmaker/moviegoer relationship. Case in point: Blue Velvet, often acclaimed as one of his most representative films and almost a bona fide classic thirty years later. For all of my good intentions and Blue Velvet’s overall accessibility compared to other Lynch films, I found myself watching the film in a fairly detached manner, unwilling to try to make too much sense of it given the quicksand trap examples established by his other movies. I’ve never been particularly eager to play the mind games of Lynch’s movies, and found that my best viewing mode for them is purely contemplative, not expecting the plot to make sense. Even in that state, though, I have to admit that Dennis Hopper’s performance is ferociously good: His character, all id and swagger, thunders on-screen and has his way with characters like a tornado. We can only, like the film’s protagonist, watch in awe and hope that he doesn’t notice us. Blue Velvet has, at its core, a long sustained sequence of abuse and voyeurism that can’t easily be forgotten. It’s by far the standout segment in a film dealing with crime and violence in a small town. Kyle MacLachlan is fine as the viewpoint character and Laura Dern does have a few good moments (in-between this and Wild at Heart—perhaps my less-disliked Lynch film—, a substantial part of her best filmography owes much to Lynch) but it’s Isabella Rossellini who earns her acting acclaim in this film as Hopper’s souffre-douleur. It makes, in typically Lynchian sense, for a big surreal ball of moviemaking, although I note with some comfort that there is a level of superficial understanding here that’s not necessarily possible in other more enigmatic Lynch films. When I say that Blue Velvet ranks highly among Lynch’s best films, keep in mind that I’m grading on a curve.

Wild at Heart (1990)

Wild at Heart (1990)

(On TV, October 2016) I’m not a big fan of David Lynch’s film, and even my tepid linking for Wild at Heart shows why. In some ways one of the tamest, most accessible films in Lynch’s oeuvre, Wild at Heart often feels like a wild melodrama pushed to eleven, with graphic sex and violence far exceeding anything that could be considered reasonable. Nicolas Cage is in classic exuberant form as a small-time criminal eloping with his love and gradually being drawn back into a life of violence. Meanwhile, Laura Dern shows more of herself than ever before (repeatedly) as a young woman escaping from the clutches of her mother via a road trip with no clear end goal. Sex and crime figure heavily in the result, cranking the exploitation factor of the film but not exactly helping it being taken seriously. Wild at Heart now feels like a low-octane Natural Born Killers at time, like a softcore thriller at others. It is rarely boring, though but even though I feel as if the R-rated material should help raise my opinion of the film, Lynch’s gleefully obtuse direction doesn’t help. Wild at Heart is far tamer than some of his more outrageous film—still, I can’t help that providing just a bit more guidance to viewers would not be such a bad thing. And that, in a nutshell, is pretty much my reaction to Lynch’s oeuvre: would it kill him to be just a bit more understandable?

Lost Highway (1997)

Lost Highway (1997)

(On DVD, September 2016) I’m not really surprised to find out that I dislike Lost Highway (I’m generally cold on David Lynch’s filmography), but I am surprised to realize how much I disliked it. Part of it, admittedly has to do with the terrible DVD version of the film. Seemingly recorded from a VHS tape, it has wavy lines, a 3:4 aspect ratio, no subtitles and a muddy picture quality. (Any thought that it was intentional is quickly dispelled by looking at the film’s Wikipedia page: the 2003 DVD version that I saw is almost universally reviled.) But trying to blame the DVD for the bad movie-watching experience is nonsense: the film itself is deliberately enigmatic, presenting the same roles being played by different characters, plays with dream logic, showcases bizarre imagery and doesn’t really give much through to its narrative. There is, to be charitable, a way to make sense of this, delving deep into trauma response, identity dissociation and debilitating guilt. But at this moment, I’m not interested in playing games, hunting sub-textual clues, piecing together the answer or basically doing anything but watching a story. So I flip over the table and declare defeat: I don’t like Lost Highway and I have no intention to revisiting it anytime soon. That DVD is going away, and good riddance.