Auteur of the Week: David Lynch

To begin, I’m going to quote from the Wikipedia entry about auteurs, in order to establish what I mean when I call David Lynch an auteur.

The term auteur (French for author) is used to describe film directors (or, more rarely, producers, or writers) who are considered to have a distinctive, recognizable style, because they (a) repeatedly return to the same subject matter, (b) habitually address a particular psychological or moral theme, (c) employ a recurring visual and aesthetic style, or (d) demonstrate any combination of the above. In theory, an auteur’s films are identifiable regardless of their genre. The term was first applied in its cinematic sense in François Truffaut’s 1954 essay “A Certain Tendency of the French Cinema.”

Now that we’ve established what makes a director an auteur, let’s have a look at one of my all-time favorites: David Lynch. My first Lynch film was Blue Velvet, which I saw at the Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley a few years ago when I was in college. I thought it was positively brilliant. I managed to see it a second time on the big screen as a midnight movie on Shattuck, but more on that film later. Starting in November, or perhaps October, of last year I decided to watch every episode of Twin Peaks, which completely blew me away. After which I decided I needed to watch all of David Lynch’s films. I decided to watch them in chronological order, including rewatching Blue Velvet. I’ve yet to see all of his short films, but I did, before the end of 2009, manage to watch all of his feature-length films. After completing his feature-length filmography, Lynch became one of my favorite directors of all time. He certainly has his own point of view and his films feel like nothing else.

Lynch was born in Missoula, Montana on January 20, 1946. He enrolled in the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston for one year, before leaving for Europe to study Austrian expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka. He returned to America, however, after only 15 days. He then studied Fine Art at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, before moving to Los Angeles in 1971 to study filmmaking at the AFI Conservatory. It was at this time that Lynch began winning grants in order to fund his films, including a $10,000 from AFI to make is debut feature-length film, Eraserhead. Over his lengthy career, Lynch has been nominated for four Oscars, but has yet to win. Four of his films have been nominated for the Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival; 1990’s Wild At Heart won the prestigious award and Lynch won Best Director at the festival for 2001’s Mulholland Dr.

So my first post-Twin Peaks Lynch experience was the cult classic Eraserhead. This is definitely not an easy film to watch, just as the world Lynch creates with the film is not an easy one to live in. The film is full of bizarre imagery and jarring sounds. It definitely sets the standard for Lynch’s vision when it comes to films. It is also his first collaboration with Jack Nance, who would continue to work with Lynch on several projects until his death in 1996. Without trying to spoil the plot or anything, I definitely think this film could be used as a contraceptive. Take that as you will.

Mel Brooks was so impressed with Lynch’s work on Eraserhead he hired him to direct The Elephant Man. Lynch also worked on the film’s screenplay. Again shooting in black and white, the film stared John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins, Anne Bancroft and John Gielgud. Though it received eight Academy Award nominations, including Lynch’s first nod for Best Director, it did not win a single award. For the most part it was well received by critics, but also marks the first of many unfavorable reviews of Lynch films by Roger Ebert. In Ebert’s review he states he kept asking “[him]self what the film was really trying to say about the human condition as reflected by John Merrick, and [he] kept drawing blanks.” I don’t agree with Ebert at all. I think the film speaks volumes about the human condition and our quest to be seen as individuals. Hurt’s delivery of the film’s most memorable line, “I AM NOT AN ANIMAL! I AM A HUMAN BEING! I…AM…A MAN!” is particularly heartbreaking.

Dune is perhaps both Lynch’s weakest film as well as his highest profile, big-budget, major studio film. Although it was written and directed by Lynch, his style is most definitely cramped. He has famously stated that pressure from the producers and financiers did not allow him the kind of artistic control he thrives on. In fact, there are cuts of the film where Lynch’s name is replaced with Alan Smithee, a pseudonym often used by directors who don’t want to be credited with a film they’ve worked on. That being said, I like this film. I haven’t read the book, so I’ve no basis for comparison between the two. I am, however, a big fan of science fiction films and I think this film works well within that genre. But perhaps that’s part of the problem; Lynch’s films often transcend genre and the producers wanted something more straight-forward. With all these clashing ideas, the film sort of loses its identity. I also think the film suffered from being released so close to 1982’s Blade Runner, which is perhaps the greatest auteur helmed sci-fi film of all time. Again, this film was not well received by Roger Ebert, who gave the film 1 star and called it, “a real mess, an incomprehensible, ugly, unstructured, pointless excursion into the murkier realms of one of the most confusing screenplays of all time.” Regardless, it’s an important point in Lynch’s career for more than one reason. For one, it was after working on this film that Lynch realized in order to make the films he wanted to make how he wanted to make them, he would have to go the indie route. Also, it marks his first collaboration with Kyle MacLachlan and Everett McGill, both of whom were featured prominently in Twin Peaks.

Blue Velvet was the first film I saw by Lynch, it is also my favorite of his films and in my opinion his best. I would say it’s his masterpiece, but I’ll leave that for Twin Peaks. This is his first look at small town America, a theme he revisited often. I love that Lynch tells stories about small town America that showcase how small towns can be just as strange and interesting and full of secrets as in a large city. This film is full of some of Lynch’s greatest characters and greatest lines (Heineken? Fuck that shit! Pabst Blue Ribbon!) I think this is Dennis Hopper’s greatest performance, although he was nominated for Best Supporting Actor for his performance in Hoosiers that same year. Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern, in her first of many Lynch collaborations, are wonderful and Isabella Rossellini is positively phenomenal in this film. Lynch received his second Oscar nom for Best Director and the film was nominated for seven Independent Spirit Awards, Rossellini winning for Best Female Lead.

My love for this film knows no ends. For me, it’s hard to watch, yet I can’t look away. I’ve rewatched it numerous times and each time I find myself noticing more and more things I hadn’t in previous viewings. It really deserves multiple viewings and most definitely holds up. Although I love it, the film is very polarizing; praised by some and hated by others. Yet again Ebert disliked the film, although he praised Rossellini’s performance. He even went as far as to state that he thought Lynch’s treatment of the actress in the film was misogynistic.

Wild at Heart, written by Lynch, is based on Barry Gifford’s 1989 pulp novel Wild at Heart: The Story of Sailor and Lula. The film received mixed reviews, and according to Lynch approximately 80 people walked out of the first test screening and 100 people out of the next. Again, Ebert disliked the film, stating, “He is a good director, yes. If he ever goes ahead and makes a film about what’s really on his mind, instead of hiding behind sophomoric humor and the cop-out of ‘parody,’ he may realize the early promise of his Eraserhead. But he likes the box office prizes that go along with his pop satires, so he makes dishonest movies like this one.” Conversely, Peter Travers stated that the film cemented Lynch as the “most exciting and innovative filmmaker of his generation.” Regardless of the mixed reviews, the film won the Palme d’Or at the Cannes film festival that year and Diane Ladd received numerous nominations for her performance, including an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. I think it is one of Nicolas Cage’s finest performances and Laura Dern gives another fabulous performance. The film is manic and violent and full of wild characters, but at its core the film is about love and passion and lust for life.

That same year Twin Peaks debuted on ABC as a mid-season replacement on April 8th. It has been hailed by many as the beginning of modern television as we know it and I agree. It had a large ensemble cast, a mystery at its core, strange characters and utilized unusual filming techniques. Unlike a lot of shows these days that have ensemble casts, the show did not feel bogged down by its complicated plot and was able to showcase all of its regular characters in almost every episode. It’s hard for me to say exactly what it is about this show I love so much. I know a lot of it comes from my love for Special Agent Dale Cooper, as portrayed by Kyle MacLachlan. But really, I think it has to do with the whole world created Lynch with partner Mark Frost. I love how quirky everything and everyone is. I love how for most of the series each episode represents a single day. I think Lynch and Frost came up with an amazing concept and managed to execute it perfectly. I’d also like to point out that Lynch himself plays a reoccurring character named Gordon Cole and his performance is charming and funny and I’d love to see him act more often. I also can’t talk about this show without mentioning the music composed by Angelo Badalamenti. It’s very French New Wave-y and really sets the mood for the whole series. Although the show was critically acclaimed – earning 13 Emmy nominations for its first season and 4 for its second season, it ultimately ended up being cancelled. The finale episode of the second season, which wound up being the series finale as well, aired on June 10, 1991 and remains one of the most beguiling and frustrating unresolved cliffhangers in television history.

In 1992 Lynch brought his Twin Peaks prequel film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me to the Cannes film festival. It was booed. Despite its negative reviews it was nominated for two Independent Spirit Awards, one for Sheryl Lee as Best Female Lead and one for Angelo Badalamenti’s score, which he won. It’s widely noted that even among Twin Peaks fans this film was not well received, except in Japan, where it was a huge commercial success. I am still on the fence with this one. There are aspects of it I really love. I like that we get to see more of Lee as Laura Palmer, but I also don’t like what Lynch did to the character of Donna Hayward, played by Lara Flynn Boyle in the series and Moira Kelly in the film. Also the film lacks my second favorite character, Audrey Horne who was played by Sherilyn Fenn in the series. Basically the film is nowhere near as great as the series and I’d hope anyone who plans to watch it gives the series the attention it deserves first.

Lost Highway is my second favorite Lynch film. It is a neo-noir psychological thriller that also flirts with surrealism. I don’t really want to spoil the film by talking too much about its plot. I’ll just say that it is a giant mind-fuck in the best sense. It got two thumbs down from Siskel and Ebert upon its release in 1997. Lynch, however used this as a promotional tool, famously placing the following ad in a newspaper:

A big thanks goes to LynchNet for that image. The film also contains my absolute favorite scene in anything Lynch has done, as well as one of my favorite scenes in film history:

I just think that this scene is a fabulous use of music and styling and camera angles and acting by Patricia Arquette and Balthazar Getty. I think Lynch often writes about love and the connection between individuals that can form instantly and this scene is that idea perfectly realized.

1999’s The Straight Story is one the least Lynchian of Lynch’s films. For one, it’s rated G. It’s also the rare exception wherein Lynch solely directs, the screenplay having been written by John E. Roach and Mary Sweeney. It’s one of his mostly highly acclaimed and generally liked films, and still maintains a 95% Fresh rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The film was nominated for several awards including a Best Actor Oscar for lead Richard Farnsworth. It is based on the true story of Alvin Straight’s journey across Iowa and Wisconsin on a lawnmower. As much as I love Straight’s journey throughout the film and the people he meets and touches along the way, my favorite part of the film is when he reaches his destination – his ailing brother, played by Harry Dean Stanton. Fransworth and Stanton are so perfect together and the ending is uncharacteristically positive and sweet for a Lynch film.  This is one of the few Lynch films Ebert actually loved as he gave the film a four-star rating.

Mulholland Drive, much like Lost Highway, is a neo-noir psychological thriller. It also told in a non-linear style and really needs multiple viewings to fully comprehend (if that’s even possible). It was received well by most critics. Roger Ebert’s love-to-hate relationship with Lynch’s films, first broken by his positive review of The Straight Story, was again broken by this film. The critic stated in his review that, “David Lynch has been working toward Mulholland Drive all of his career, and now that he’s arrived there I forgive him for Wild at Heart (1990) and even Lost Highway (1997). At last his experiment doesn’t shatter the test tubes. The movie is a surrealist dreamscape in the form of a Hollywood film noir, and the less sense it makes, the more we can’t stop watching it.” The film is considered by many to be one of the greatest films of the last decade and received many awards and nominations, including a Best Director Oscar nod for Lynch. It’s themes are similar to that of another film I love to death, Billy Wilder’s 1950 masterpiece Sunset Blvd. Even its title is in part an homage to Wilder’s film. Both films ruminate on the way in which Hollywood is a dream for many, but in reality it often is a machine that uses people until they’ve nothing left and a place full of broken dreams and all too often fatal illusions.

Inland Empire is a perfect pairing of director and actress. Lynch and Laura Dern had made two previous films together and this film is his best utilization of the actress. Lynch was so passionate about the performance he got out of Dern that he took to the streets campaigning for her to get an Oscar nomination. This led to several videos on YouTube of Lynch on the side of the road, my favorite being a video of him with a cow:

Dern gave a phenomenal performance in this film, but she failed to receive the nomination. The film received mostly positive reviews, including a third 4-star review from Roger Ebert in a row.

This is a very long film, and like a lot of Lynch’s films, is not easy to watch at times. What I love so much about the film is that even though it is full of homages to other cinema auteurs, it is still distinctly a film by David Lynch. This film is Lynch’s last feature film to date.

According to his article on Wikipedia, Lynch is working on a road documentary “about his dialogues with regular folk on the meaning of life,” with traveling companions including singer Donovan and physicist John Hagelin, as well as an animation entitled Snootworld and another documentary on Maharishi Mahesh Yogi consisting of interviews with people who knew him.

Lynch also does guest appearances on The Cleveland Show as Gus the Bartender, having been convinced to appear on the show by its lead actor, Mike Henry.

Lynch has also written, directed and produced numerous short films and online series. I’ve yet to see any of them, but at some point I intend to Netflix The Short Films of David Lynch. There have also been several books written about Lynch as well as his films.

To make a long story short, I love David Lynch. He is not for everyone, Roger Ebert included, but he is undeniably a director with a strong personal voice and cinematic vision, the very definition of an auteur. Over his 35+ year career has created some of the most memorable and thought-provoking films in cinema history and I don’t think he’s anywhere near finished yet.

You can purchase all of David Lynch’s films here.


About Marya E. Gates

Cinephile to the max.

Posted on June 23, 2010, in Auteur of the Week and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. 6 Comments.

  1. I had written a fairly intelligent reply which was eaten by my comptuer. I will try to reconstruct it later. 🙂

  2. Awesome post, girl. I still need to see Twin Peaks, Wild at Heart, Inland Empire, and all of Mulholland Drive. All I’ve seen is the Winkies scene, and it scared the shit out of me.

  3. I loved Blue Velvet when I saw it in the theater. They way it turns upside down the idea that country towns are some sort of fantasy paradise without the sins that haunt city dwellers is delicious. Possibly growing up in Montana is the source of his understanding that little towns are full of intrigue. The town I live in (a county seat – population 3,000) has intrigue aplenty.

    When Twin Peaks was on TV I was a young working mother and really didn’t give it enough attention. At the time I felt that I could match the Log Lady with any number of interesting characters and it wasn’t until I rewatched the series on DVD recently that I could give it the attention it deserves. I now see how great it is which shows that perhaps one can teach an old dog new tricks.

    The Elephant Man was amazing. It is an extended metaphor focusing on the essential humanity of us all by seeing how someone different is treated worse than an animal. Wonderful movies, wonderful performance showing the beautiful soul of John Merrick.

    I cannot say that Lynch is a favorite of mine, but I admire a director with a focused point of view.

  4. sunburntcheeks

    I loved Twin Peaks, but have hated Lynch since seeing Mullholand Drive back when it came out. I didn’t really hate him, just couldn’t be bothered watching his movies since not understanding Mullholand Drive at all. Having said that, I enjoyed reading this and will give Blue Velvet a chance ASAP (:

  1. Pingback: Oscar Vault Monday – The Elephant Man, 1980 (dir. David Lynch) « the diary of a film history fanatic

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