Staff Picks: David Lynch’s World of Dreams

David Lynch needs no introduction, but perhaps his filmography does. Each of our staff picks a film by the master of surrealist filmmaking, whose filmography never ceases to amaze.

Eraserhead (1977), introduced by Saoirse Selway

‘Eraserhead’ is a really important movie to me. It’s so stupidly formative to me as a critic and filmmaker that it can’t be put into words. In order to attempt to try, we have to begin a ways back. I got into cinema properly when I was 16 and miserable with a lot of time on my hands. I was in a dark place and responded to dark movies. When I was just beginning to put my life together I bought my friend back to mine skiving off sports and we watched ‘Eraserhead’. We’d seen ‘The Babadook’ the week prior and loved it. This was a different beast… I’d probably seen a lot movies that used surrealist techniques before, like ‘The Babadook’, like ‘Fight Club’, to this day my favourite movie, but I’d never seen anything like this. The black and white cinematography is astonishingly good, the makeup incredible, and still Lynch’s scariest work bar maybe ‘Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me’. For a movie with such a sparse narrative Henry is a strikingly compelling protagonist and his world is so dystopic and grim and dark that it just makes sense that the stories that happen in it are this goddamn strange. It is these traits that hold the ragtag, shambles that ‘Eraserhead’ would otherwise be into a tight character piece. Even though since then works like ‘Blue Velvet’, ‘Mullholland Drive’, and ‘The Elephant Man’ have maybe been praised more, for me, it is this, ‘Eraserhead’, that is the purest, most concentrated distillation of what it is that makes Lynch so absolutely fascinating to me out of any of his movies.

The Elephant Man (1980), introduced by Jacob Calta

1980’s The Elephant Man saw Lynch granted the keys to the kingdom as far as success was concerned. A wealth of talent was at the young director’s disposal to bring to life the story of Joseph Merrick, a severely deformed Englishman whose life captivated the public, and whose deformities captivated medical science. Here’s a sampling of said talent: Cinematographer Freddie Francis (The Innocents), Editor Anne V. Coates (Lawrence of Arabia), Composer John Morris (Young Frankenstein), & Actors Sir John Hurt (Midnight Express) and Sir Anthony Hopkins (The Silence of the Lambs) in career performances as Merrick and Dr. Frederick Treves. Lynch is able to bring these elements, and many others, together in a film of tremendous empathy and humanity. He also showcases the industrial surrealism of Eraserhead, albeit in smaller portions, and fused seamlessly with the grim Victorian-era London depicted. Thematically, The Elephant Man showcases age-old adages like “don’t judge a book by its cover,” for Hurt’s Merrick is a well-read, thoughtful man who happens to inhabit a defective form of the human body. He begins as a scientific anomaly to be studied, gawked at by the masses of London, but by his final moments with us, he has been seen for who he truly is. It is all encapsulated in what Hurt himself described as the rawest moment of the film. Cornered by a mob in a urinal, Merrick has an outburst of overwhelming emotion:

“I am not an elephant! I am not an animal! I am a human being! I am…a man!.”

What makes the film’s almost Capran sentimentality so beautiful is that Merrick never winds up exclusively pitied. He is uplifted and afforded the basic dignity that should be afforded to all of us. His kindness and intelligence become self-evident when one takes their time to know him, which makes Hurt’s scenes with Hannah Gordon as Mrs. Treves and Anne Bancroft as Mrs. Kendal so touching. The Elephant Man is proof-positive that David Lynch was more than capable of making a film as surreal as it was deeply heartfelt and, above all, human.

Blue Velvet (1986), introduced by Amos Lamb

As the first David Lynch film I ever watched, Blue Velvet will always have a special place for me in his filmography. But ever since whenever I’ve rewatched it, it always blows me away how seamlessly Lynch creates such a dream-like quality in Blue Velvet. Despite my love for all of Lynch’s film, none so far have managed to knock Blue Velvet out as my favourite.

Coming off a troubled creative process with Dune, Lynch dived back into his wheelhouse of the surreal and the bizarre with Blue Velvet. Blending his signature surreal qualities set against a backdrop of middle-class suburbia, Lynch crafts a surreal nightmare that leaves a lasting impression well after the movie ends. Lynch’s ability to create such dreamy, and ultimately nightmarish stories comes to a head in this film, with the surreal rooted in the image of small town America to create a sense of uncanny and dread. When I watched this when I was younger, I was drawn in by the juxtaposition of the films tone, quickly slipping between the real and the bizarre and blurring the line between the two. 

The whole cast is absolutely fantastic, creating a wonderful range of interesting characters that all pique your interest in some way. Dennis Hopper delivers a career-best performance as the psychopathic Frank Booth. Bringing the nightmarish character to life in an unforgettable performance, scenes like the ‘In Dreams’ sequence are equally terrifying and bizarre in all the best ways a Lynch film can be. But equally Kyle MacLachlan and Isabella Rossellini give fantastic performances, and Laura Dern is superb in her role. 

This film also has one of the best opening sequences of all time, as the camera moves along a picture perfect suburban landscape, backed by the titular song. The shots are almost sickly-sweet, and it creates a wonderful sense of the uncanny as this pristine lifestyle is juxtaposed with the image of a man suffering a stroke inside the realm of this clinical aesthetic. It’s a fantastic opening and, in my opinion, perfectly sets up the rest of the film.

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), introduced by David Alkhed

Anyone who knows me or follows me on social media knows how much I freaking love Twin Peaks. I love the characters, I love the setting, the sense of humor, the music and pretty much everything about it. David Lynch and Mark Frost created a wonderful world that I will constantly go back to and never ever tire of. So maybe it comes as a surprise to no one to learn that my favorite David Lynch film might be Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me. Is it his best film? Probably not. Is it Lynch at his artistic peak? Well, no. But it might be his most emotionally resonant film (outside of perhaps The Elephant Man).

The reason why the film is so emotional and therefore works so well is because Lynch places us right into Laura Palmer’s world, in what is to become the last week in her life. And the film also depicts how Laura deals with the abuse and the dread of knowing you will die soon not in a realistic way but in a much more expressionistic manner, which helps us relate to Laura and what she goes through much more than if it had been depicted in a realistic manner, in my opinion. There are also some very inspired creative choices on Lynch’s part, such as playing music so loud in certain scenes that the actors need to be subtitled (which I’ve stolen for a script I’m writing). And also, the entire cast is excellent (David Bowie shows up in one scene), but Sheryl Lee delivers an astounding and fearless performance as Laura Palmer that I believe is/was Oscar-worthy (but of course the Academy doesn’t give out awards to great movies).

Even though I still have yet to see Mulholland Drive, Inland Empire, Wild at Heart and I probably need to revisit Eraserhead and Blue Velvet, it might be tough for any of those films to top Fire Walk with Me, in my humble opinion.

Mulholland Dr. (2001), introduced by Akram Herrak

David Lynch’s penultimate film is a perfect emblem of his work: dreamy, often frightening and very strange. As my personal introduction to Lynch’s filmography, Mulholland Dr. was unlike anything I’d ever seen before, with its branching plots, its tendency to jump into nightmarish worlds, and its ability to blend them with the mundane and everyday life of Hollywood. Originally planned to be a TV series, Lynch shot the entire first half of the film in 1999, and after TV executives refused it, he shot the second half and turned it into a feature film. That explains one of the oddest transitions in the film, which is the blue box mystery, the tool Lynch utilizes to bring the two halves of the film together and constantly refuses to explain or clarify. In an attempt to describe the plot, I will say that it is about an aspiring actress who moves into L.A. only to find an amnesic woman in her apartment and aids her to find out what happened to her, while a mysterious group forces a director to cast a certain actress, a nightmare hides in an alley behind a diner, and an emcee in club “Silencio” explains how everything is an illusion that is pre-recorded. It does not make any sense, I know, but that doesn’t stop it from being one of Lynch’s best and most enjoyable film. While it is not as experimental as something like Eraserhead, and not as straightforward and traditional (narratively speaking) as something like The Elephant Man, Mulholland Dr. is something singular, even in Lynch’s own bizarre and unorthodox filmography. “I like to remember things my own way. How I remembered them, not necessarily how they happened,” David Lynch often says, and I feel that perfectly describes his filmmaking, which is unapologetically personal. A great example of that is The Cowboy Man, which Lynch dreamed of one night, added to the film, and refused to give any explanation for. What a beautiful weirdo.  

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