A Guide to Understanding (if You Can) the Complex Works of David Lynch | Dallas Observer

Things To Do

An Easy Primer on the Definitive Early Works of David Lynch Ahead of a Dallas Retrospective

Sheryl Lee's Laura Palmer and Kyle MacLachlan's Dale Cooper have been baffling TV viewers for years on David Lynch's TV experiment Twin Peaks.
Sheryl Lee's Laura Palmer and Kyle MacLachlan's Dale Cooper have been baffling TV viewers for years on David Lynch's TV experiment Twin Peaks. New Line Cinema
click to enlarge
Sheryl Lee's Laura Palmer and Kyle MacLachlan's Dale Cooper have been baffling TV viewers for years on David Lynch's TV experiment Twin Peaks.
New Line Cinema
Some films make you go, "Hmmm." David Lynch's films don't care how they make you go as long as you stay and watch.

Lynch's works, such as Mulholland Drive, Eraserhead and Blue Velvet, bathe in stark bleakness, reminding you of your mortality and that the world can be a truly awful place. But David Lynch is far from a nihilist. He never explains the ideas or meaning behind his work because, as he said in a 2018 interview with The Guardian, "magicians don’t tell how they did a thing."

That's a big part of the fun and frustration of watching Lynch films. They can be downright confusing at times, but you always exit the theater changed from the way you entered. His choices for symbols and themes could mean everything or nothing at all. You can chip away at Lynch's skull for hours hoping to reach a tiny piece of his brain, but you'll never truly get to the heart of what the filmmaker has in his head.

In a way, Lynch's movies and art are a precursor to the internet, where everyone with a set of eyes and fingers who can access a keyboard will share their theories on what "The Arm" in Twin Peaks' Black Lodge really means or why a cooked chicken pours out tiny waves of blood during dinner in Eraserhead. Maybe there's no reason, like the form of cinema celebrated in Quentin Dupieux's surrealist film Rubber.

The Texas Theatre is holding a "Complete Retrospective" of David Lynch's works, starting on Thursday with his defining work Eraserhead, followed by 11 days of screenings and Q&As with some of the people who worked on Lynch's most famous and infamous films. If you've never seen a David Lynch film and don't want to go into the experience completely blind, here's a breakdown of some of the movies that define Lynch's filmmaking style.  Eraserhead (1977)
Lynch started his artist endeavors as a painter, then moved into filmmaking as a way to make his paintings come alive. There's a story about the time his father, Don, saw some of his art for the first time. Lynch used things like rotten fruit and dead mice in his works at his Philadelphia art studio. Don took one look at these disturbing images and told his son, "Dave? I don't think you should ever have children." His first feature-length film, Eraserhead, feels just like one of those strange paintings spilling its guts as you try to decipher what's lying in front of you. It happens to be about one of the most frightening experiences a human can face: the shadow of parenthood.

If there's one theme or element that links all of Lynch's works, it's his exploration of human consciousness and the true purpose of dreams. Lynch brings out those subconscious images we store in a locked safe in the back of our heads and forces us to confront them; he holds back nothing in Eraserhead. The titular character, played by Jack Nance, seems trapped in the feverish nightmare of a post-industrial landscape while on the cusp of becoming a father for the first time.

Lynch said in his memoir Room to Dream, "I felt Eraserhead, I didn't think it." The horrible creatures and gory imagery are expressions of fear and uncertainty that most people aren't ready to face, but Lynch forces you to confront and absorb them without compromise. It's this ethos that would follow Lynch through his many works of art to come.

The Elephant Man (1980)
One of Lynch's most celebrated films seemed to take a wide turn from Eraserhead by telling a linear story about a real person, but this story is tailor-made for Lynch's style and sensibilities.

The Elephant Man stars Anthony Hopkins, and John Hurt as the title character, John Merrick, who earns his famous nickname for his extreme physical deformities caused by a rare disease known as Proteus syndrome. The decision to make a film based on a real story of a character who looks like he could've come from a Lynchian dream is a swerve that the director likes to take with his audiences. It also confronts audiences with the heartbreaking story of Merrick's difficulties and the emotional shell he had to build around himself for fear of being ostracized or startling others. In a way, it mirrors Lynch's own life of semi-reclusiveness and finding beauty in the things that humanity has collectively declared as disgusting.

Dune (1984)
This infamous adaptation of Frank Herbert's sci-fi epic about the price of conquest in the face of unchecked capitalism is more widely known for how hard it tanked at the box office. Lynch had just come off the huge success of The Elephant Man, both financially and critically, with eight Oscar nominations. The Elephant Man is what got him the job for Dune because, according to film producer Raffaella De Laurentiis in Room to Dream, "I was impressed by David's ability to create a world that was totally believable."

A lot went wrong, starting with a massive budget that would set up a downfall as one of the biggest cinematic bombs in industry history. However, the film introduced a lot of styles and themes that would follow Lynch through his bigger successes.

For starters, this production began a relationship with Kyle MacLachlan, who was cast to play Paul Atreides, the "William Wallace" of a planet called Arrakis who starts a revolution to take down a powerful villain hellbent on controlling production of a substance called melange or "The Spice," which can bestow untold powers on its users. It also continues Lynch's uncompromising vision on a much grander scale that may have led to its downfall. However, not compromising is how Lynch achieves his vision. Whether they work is up to an audience's anticipation, something he seems to leave open for his viewers every time.
Blue Velvet (1986)
Lynch swerves to other genres once again with Blue Velvet, which would become one of his most discussed and most controversial film choices to date.

Lynch decides to explore a psychosexual dream, with MacLachlan, again, as college student Jeffrey Beaumont, who returns home when his father has a stroke. He stumbles upon a severed human ear in a wooded area — instantly turning the film into some kind of existentialist murder mystery. Then it ups the jarring factor by throwing in Dennis fucking Hopper as a dominant sadomasochist villain who goes way over the border of psychotic as the story unfolds. It's unflinching, uncompromising and uncomfortable to watch, aka pure David Lynch. It also plays into Lynch's view of how beauty does such a neat job of hiding its seedy underbelly.
Twin Peaks and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1990)
One of the biggest triumphs of Lynch's most famous work in television is that a network allowed him to do pretty much whatever he wanted without losing its FCC license.

ABC broadcast Lynch's take on melodramatic mystery dramas that dominated the mainstream airwaves throughout the '80s and '90s. He hooked people with an unraveling story about a popular teenage girl's murder in a seemingly ordinary northwestern town. Right as the story was about to make its reveal, ABC canceled it because, really, it was a miracle we even got to see any episodes without having to pay for a premium cable package.

Once again, Lynch's story explores how we tend to hide behind the beauty of our worlds to escape the things we'd rather not see while reminding us that's precisely how evil gains power. Pretending that something isn't there just makes it more destructive and powerful. Almost nothing fits into the landscape of television of its time. Twin Peaks and its movie Fire Walk With Me tries to tie up the loose ends but deftly leaves some questions that Lynch would answer with Twin Peaks: The Return on Showtime.

Twin Peaks most expresses Lynch's meditative approach to his work. Agent Cooper, played by MacLachlan, is a Dirk Gently meets Joe Friday kind of detective who believes in the connectedness of all things. The whole series is a puzzle that doesn't have a definitive, final shape. Pieces of it can be connected to other things in other ways. If anything, its biggest accomplishment is how it smashes TV's most common symptom of escapism. Most TV shows are escapist from our own lives, but the stories of Twin Peaks are so bizarre and interconnected that they encroach on our lives. They prompted discussions, arguments and fan theories long before the internet overflowed with them. 
KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Danny Gallagher has been a regular contributor to the Dallas Observer since 2014. He has also written features, essays and stories for MTV, the Chicago Tribune, Maxim, Cracked, Mental_Floss, The Week, CNET and The Onion AV Club.

Latest Stories