My Personal Journey to Understanding David Lynch
For years, everyone told me he was a genius. I read countless publications, reviews, and articles praising his work as...
For years, everyone told me he was a genius. I read countless publications, reviews, and articles praising his work as a mad scientist behind the camera. His loyal fans are some of the most adamant and defensive I have seen or encountered. For years, I tried to love David Lynch the way I thought I was supposed to. I poured over his work, from his early black and white films of Eraserhead and The Elephant Man to his most celebrated works of Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive, all the way down the rabbit hole of his most recent and daunting film, Inland Empire. And, to put it simply, I just didn’t get it. And thus, understanding David Lynch has become something of an obsession of mine over the years.
What was so brilliant about a film with no direction? Why is Blue Velvet the work of a genius? Because I didn’t see it. But I knew there was something here, not because everyone was telling me so but because something kept drawing me back in to Lynch’s work. I don’t know how many times I have sat down to watch a Lynch film - be it Blue Velvet or Mulholland Drive or the ultra-violent Wild at Heart – and I have turned off the film well before it ended. It ad to be five or six times for each movie. I would sit down with what I thought was the right frame of mind to explore his filmmaking and would wind up frustrated, distracted, and exhausted.
There are plenty of celebrated directors I don’t care for – directors like Wes Anderson for example – and I am perfectly fine with my positioning. I don’t care if I didn’t love Moonrise Kingdom like the rest of the planet, big deal. But forever I have known, somewhere deep down in my surrealistic soul, that Lynch WAS for me. I wasn’t getting it, yet there was a reason I returned to his works again and again only to be left holding the bag of my emotional disconnect with his work. I hated David Lynch for a long time, but I couldn’t give up on him for some inexplicable reason.
It was 2007 when, in disgust, I turned off Inland Empire after two hours of the three hour digitally photographed surrealist thriller. I stuck the Netflix envelope in the mail immediately and threw away any hopes I had of ever understanding this man who fascinated me to what sometimes felt like unhealthy levels of intrigue. Four years passed and I avoided Lynch’s work, pushing my curiosity out of my consciousness whenever the mood would strike. For four years I gave up on finding meaning to his work, on unwrapping the brain and emotion Lynch put in his work.
And then, one afternoon, just like that, I bought a copy of the Blue Velvet 25th Anniversary blu-ray. I didn’t even think about it, I just purchased it, went home, and watched it, almost like there was some sort of unseen driving force behind my decision that was out of my control. I watched Blue Velvet, and for the first time I saw what others saw. David Lynch had made an American masterpiece about the decay of Suburbia in only the way he could. This was no milquetoast American Beauty look at suburban angst; no no, this was a brutal and unflinching bit of genius about what may be going on right around the corner from any of our front doors. I saw the artistry in his compositions, in the haunting musical number by Dean Stockwell, in the unhinged performance by Dennis Hopper. And in that moment it was as if everything about David Lynch made sense.
I sought out Mulholland Drive and immediately fell in love with it. Yes, this is a film about dreams, but it is so vividly and completely succinct about dreams the accuracy is frightening. The way characters interchange and the way threads of time drift in and out of focus shape the film into an avant masterpiece which also manages to sharply comment on the nature of celebrity. Wild at Heart was a stroke of madness from Lynch, and the perfect vehicle for Nicolas Cage. Sure, Lost Highway was a bit of a misfire to most people, but there are certain elements of the film that will forever creep into my nightmares. I’m talking to you, Robert Blake.
I went to another Lynch film, then another, and it was all in focus like an alcoholic a week after sobriety. Everything made sense in the way it didn’t make sense.
I still don’t know what happened or what made me “get” Lynch all of a sudden. But I am glad I finally understand the way he operates within the universe of his pictures. The magic surrealist portraits he paints through his off-kilter view of the world belong in cinema. They exist to be confounding, they thrive on bewilderment. I think turning thirty had something to do with it, although I don’t really see why that would change my opinion. Sometimes, I suppose, art takes time and work to understand If at first you don’t succeed, try try again. Then again, then one more time, four years later. Then, maybe it will click.