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Director Spotlight: David Lynch

by
January 18, 2007

We're starting up a new weekly feature every Thursday - Director Spotlight. Each week a new director will be highlighted and his achievements discussed, all comprised into one encompassing article written by Barry Wurst. Interviews with the director and much more will all be implemented soon!

Few American filmmakers are as deft at blending the beautiful with the grotesque as vividly as David Lynch. Truly, the remarkable body of work Mr. Lynch has crafted over the years shows a visual and thematic consistency - Lynch explores the hidden side of Americana and shows the bafflingly mysterious and truly frightening secrets that lie barely beneath the surface.

January 18 - David Lynch

David LynchLynch's initial occupation as an artist is evident in every endeavor he's produced and his inventive, unsettling early student films show a genuine talent forming. The Grandmother (1970) (about a boy with a bed-wetting problem who grows a grandmother in his bedroom), a celebrated early film, is a perfect precursor to the thrilling Eraserhead (1977), the midnight movie sensation that put Lynch on the map. Years in the making, with a patient cast and crew, Lynch's brooding, funny and queasy film is infamous for The Baby, a character so gross and scarily real. Lynch has never confessed as to how he made this "special effect", which may or may not be a good thing. Of all people, comedy legend Mel Brooks was taken with Eraserhead and hired Lynch to direct The Elephant Man (1980) for his Brooksfilms studio. Based on the celebrated Broadway play starring David Bowie, the movie, a black and white stunner (starring Anthony Hopkins, John Hurt and Anne Bancroft) is a moving, harrowing masterpiece. An award winner as well, The Elephant Man caught the attention of the great Dino De Laurentiis, a (to this day) hugely prolific produced who hired Lynch to direct a $40 million adaptation of Frank Herbert's "Dune". The resulting film saw Lynch directing capably but in over his head with a jumbled, abbreviated and barely coherent script. The film was a critical and box office disaster that did a disservice to fans of the book, the amazing cast Lynch assembled and expectations of what was expected to be "the Star Wars of the 80's".

Blue Velvet PosterDe Laurentiis decided to give Lynch another shot, and Lynch, in turn, showed him his screenplay for Blue Velvet (1986). The resulting film was so audacious, disturbing and unlike anything released before or since in America, De Laurentiis formed his own distribution company, DEG, to release the film himself, as he knew no one would be brave enough to do it for him. Blue Velvet, now considered one of the greatest films of the 80's, could very well be the definitive David Lynch film. Unlike his later works, which favor nightmarish imagery over narrative coherence, Blue Velvet has a riveting story, flawless performances and is a frightening, edge-of-your-seat thriller, in the guise of a Rockwellian satire.

In 1990, David Lynch gave television a huge jolt with "Twin Peaks", a nightly series unlike any other that shares thematic similarities with Blue Velvet (as well as cast members) and brought surrealism, inventive writing and event broadcasting back to the air for maybe the first time since "The Prisoner" or even "The Twilight Zone". Lynch's violent, celebrated Wild at Heart (1990) was released the same year and won the Pam d'Or (Best Picture) at the Cannes Film Festival, only solidifying Lynch's enormous popularity worldwide as a cinematic innovator. This period, unfortunately, didn't last.

The following year, ratings dropped for the even wilder second season of "Twin Peaks", which would be its final season on the air. Soon thereafter, Lynch released "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me", a bizarre, occasionally brilliant prequel that was meant to fill in narrative gaps for fans of the show. The film was a flop at Cannes and a critical, box office flop in the U.S.

Lost Highway PosterLost Highway (1997) would prove a return to form (of sorts) for Lynch, though the soundtrack would prove to be a bigger hit than the film itself. Starring Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette, the film never tops its terrifying first act, which peaks with a freaky telephone call Pullman's jazz singer makes when he meets an eerie character played by (pre-scandal) Robert Blake.

Two years later, the unthinkable happened - Lynch made The Straight Story (1999), a G-rated film, released by Disney, that showed a tender side, a renewed faith in storytelling (after his past two films, while open to interpretation, are pretty incoherent) and Lynch's gift for getting remarkable work from actors (Richard Farnsworth's Oscar-nominated performance is his best, and Sissy Spacek is incredible as his quirky daughter).

Following the acclaim of The Straight Story (his most moving film since The Elephant Man), Lynch went back to television, only to see his pilot for "Mulholland Dr." rejected. Rather than walk away, Lynch kept adding material to it and created a film that would prove to be one of his most acclaimed and discussed works. He won a Best Director award at Cannes and an Academy Award nomination for Best Director and his film was praised as one of the best films of 2001. Truly, like Fire Walk With Me, Mulholland Dr. (2001) is a bizarre, frustrating and often remarkable work with some fantastic set pieces and a phenomenal, bust-out starring turn by Naomi Watts that put her in the spotlight.

Inland Empire PosterNow, after years of being made in secret in Poland and the U.S., with a cast that includes Laura Dern, Jeremy Irons and Gracie Zabriskie, Lynch's independently made and personally distributed INLAND EMPIRE is slowly being unveiled in U.S. theaters. The reviews have been mixed but even the negative ones reveal faint praise for Lynch's still potent ability at visualizing the gloriously baroque and terrifying clarity of our most psychological nightmares. His latest is said to be in line with Lost Highway and Mulholland Dr., which, depending on how big a fan you are, may or may not be a good thing. I personally long for more Lynch films like The Elephant Man, as I'm touched by Lynch's ability with actors and stories that compliment his visions (rather than the other way around). Yet, whether Lynch-lite or pitch black, I know that a film by him is unlike anything else. This is an artist who has been making deeply personal, visionary films that display a daring independent spirit, his whole career. Love him or hate him, there has never been an American director like David Lynch and his films, good or bad, will never leave your mind.

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  • james
    Nice summary, Barry. I'm a huge admirer of Lynch's work, and it's refreshing to hear someone who doesn't necessarily love his stranger pictures (though, for the record, I like those ones best of all!) still stand up for his unique style; the man's truly one of world cinema's most baffling talents, and deserves a wider audience. Hopefully Inland Empire impresses enough people overseas to warrant a big-screen release down here in New Zealand; I've only had the privelige of seeing Lynch's last two releases (Straight Story, Mulholland Dr.) in a theatre as they were intended, and both were extraordinary experiences, the kind that make me fall in love with the possibilities of cinema all over again. Can't wait - viva Lynch!

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