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Mysterious Beauty: A David Lynch Retrospective Comes to IFC Center

As humorist Anne Beatts once put it, “You can only be avant-garde for so long before you become garde.” In other words, even the most experimental, radical and unorthodox artistic minds will find their work and sensibilities inevitably moving away from the cutting edge over time, a process that can accelerate even quicker in the cases when unique visions unexpectedly find favor with the mass audience. One glaring exception to that rule—hell, a glaring exception to practically any existing rule about art—is filmmaker David Lynch, whose dark, disturbing and formally exquisite output has been challenging and outraging audiences, critics and the entire contemporary filmmaking apparatus for more than 40 years. While the works of many cinematic provocateurs have not always stood the test of time—the older projects losing their bite, the newer ones oftentimes feeling like mere rehashes of earlier works—Lynch's older films have largely managed to maintain the power they possessed when first unleashed, while the newer ones have found him continuing to push himself in new and creatively fascinating ways instead of resting on his considerable laurels.

With anticipation building for a new season of his groundbreaking TV series “Twin Peaks” on the Showtime cable network in May, more than a quarter-century after the original series left the air, the IFC Center in New York will be presenting “The Films of David Lynch,” a retrospective of his work that will be running March 24 through April 6 that will feature new 4K restorations of his landmark 1977 debut “Eraserhead” and surprise 2001 hit “Mulholland Dr.” and 35mm prints of Wild at Heart,” “The Straight Story and Inland Empire.” Admittedly, this will not be a complete retrospective of his works—you won’t be seeing any of his TV efforts such as “Twin Peaks” or the lesser-known oddities “On the Air” and “Hotel Room” or his surreal 2014 concert film “Duran Duran: Unstaged”—but in addition to his feature, it will also include a program of his short films made up of several bizarre shorts that he made in his pre-“Eraserhead” days, “Premonitions Following an Evil Deed,” his still-stunning 52-second contribution to the “Lumiere and Company” project in 1995 that he created in one shot with one of the original cameras used by the Lumiere brothers a century earlier, and a music video for the Interpol song “Lights.” Additionally, two documentaries will also be presented, Lynch’s “Meditation, Creativity, Peace,” a 2012 work chronicling his tour of Europe, the Middle East and Latin America to help spread the word about Transcendental Meditation, and “David Lynch: The Art Life,” a new film by Jon Nguyen that will begin its premiere theatrical run on March 31.

There have been any number of documentaries about Lynch—Nguyen himself produced 2007’s “Lynch”—but “David Lynch: The Art Life” is interesting because instead of revisiting his career with the usual array of film clips and talking head interviews, it focuses on his earlier years. Lynch recounts stories about his childhood and his development as an artist, both as a painter and as a filmmaker, first through such decidedly unique shorts as “Six Men Getting Sick” (1967), “The Alphabet” (1968), “The Grandmother” (1970), which, at 34 minutes, was his first major work, and “The Amputee” (1974), which he undertook to test the viability of two different types of black-and-white videotape that the American Film Institute, where he was studying, and then with “Eraserhead.” Presumably relieved over the prospect of not being asked to explain the meaning of his films, Lynch talks in an easy, friendly and accessible style. As the film progresses, one is startled to discover just how many elements of Lynch’s seemingly surreal work has its basis in real life occurrences—in the most notable example, he describes a haunting scene involving a naked woman in distress that would eventually inspire one of the most disturbing images in “Blue Velvet.” With its focus on the period up to the release of “Eraserhead,” this documentary may not appeal that much to casual observers of Lynch and his work. For dedicated fans, however, this look at his formative years is pretty much essential.

When “Eraserhead" premiered in 1977, it became an immediate sensation on the midnight movie circuit with viewers split between those who thought they had seen a masterpiece and those who thought it was nauseating and incomprehensible. However, it is unlikely that anyone on either side of that argument would have guessed that Lynch would land a well-funded prestige property as his follow-up project. And yet, that is exactly what happened when, on the recommendation of his assistant, Mel Brooks watched “Eraserhead.” Brooks loved it and offered Lynch the job of directing a film that he was going to produce about John Merrick, a man in late 19th century London who was born with such severe physical deformities that he was considered a monstrous freak until he eventually became the toast of society under the care and assistance of surgeon Frederick Treves. 

Although any number of innovative young filmmakers have buckled under the pressure of moving up to the big leagues, Lynch did surprisingly well with The Elephant Man,” a project that allowed him to take some of the elements that made “Eraserhead” so memorable—primarily the haunting, Industrial Revolution-influenced visual style and equally startling sound design—and deploy them in the service of a project that also demonstrated his heretofore unknown talents for telling a straightforward story, getting strong performances from a cast of heavy hitter actors (including John Hurt, who did the best work of his singular career as Merrick, Anthony Hopkins, Anne Bancroft and John Gielgud) and inspiring emotional responses other than nausea and confusion. Astonishingly, the film became a good-sized box office hit when it debuted in the fall of 1980 and wound up tying with “Raging Bull” for the most Oscar nominations that year with eight, including Best Picture, Best Actor for Hurt and the first of three (to date) Best Director nominations for Lynch, who also received a nomination for Best Adapted Screenplay. Although it wound up winning nothing, it did have some influence on the Oscars—there was so much outrage over it not receiving a special honorary award for Christopher Tucker’s memorable makeup work that the Academy decided to make Best Makeup an official category beginning the very next year.

The success of “The Elephant Man” made Lynch a hot property in Hollywood and even attracted the attention of George Lucas, who talked with him about the possibility of directing “Return of the Jedi.” However, when Lynch finally chose his next project, it was a different sci-fi epic, an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s seminal 1965 novel Dune, a project that had defied attempts by the likes of Alejandro Jodorowsky and Ridley Scott to distill its dense narrative into a workable screenplay. With a then-massive budget estimated to have been at least $40 million, and an international cast that included Francesca Annis, Jose Ferrer, Linda Hunt, Virginia Madsen, Jurgen Prochnow, Sting, Max von Sydow and then-unknown Kyle MacLachlan as futuristic savior Paul Atredies,Dune was a genuine epic. But when it premiered in 1984, it was an enormous disaster—critics mostly hated it, fans of the book were outraged about all the elements that weren’t included and newcomers found it absolutely impenetrable, even with the aid of cheat sheets explaining the futuristic terminology that viewers were given when they bought their tickets. Lynch himself hated the film as well, which he felt did not represent his vision of what it should be (numerous scenes were deleted at the last second at the behest of producer Dino De Laurentiis, necessitating the usage of more voice-over narration and a new introduction featuring Madsen), and vowed to never again make a film over which he did not have total control of the final cut. Even today, Lynch generally refuses to talk about the movie and it is still written off as one of the all-time flops.

And yet, if one is willing to look at it with fresh eyes and divorced from the insane levels of hype that heralded its original release, “Dune” reveals itself today to be an oftentimes impressive work that, for all of its flaws, demonstrates an epic vision that is often startling to behold. Yes, the story makes little sense but to be fair, the original book wasn’t exactly a model of narrative clarity either (one commentator referred to it as being like “King of Kings” with giant worms and it is hard to argue with that assessment) and the idea of reducing the entire story to a two-hour running time was foolish in the first place. However, if you can just sort of ignore the story as a whole—which turns out to be surprisingly easy—and just take it purely on visual terms, the result is a largely stunning cinematic experience. Given the chance to apply his stylistic sensibilities to the creation of entire worlds, Lynch let his imagination run wild, resulting in a film that is always fascinating to look at and contains some of the most striking imagery in his entire oeuvre, including the giant alien brain in a tank of liquid that proves to be one of the heavy players in this universe, the sequence in which people traverse said universe by “folding space,” the grotesque visage of the loathsome pustule-ridden villain Baron Harkonnen (Kenneth McMillan) and our first glimpse of the infamous sandworms. Even though it is wildly uneven, “Dune” is a science-fiction epic that has a vision and a personality that still shines through despite the enormous compromises. While it will never go down in the books as prime Lynch, it is one of his films that is most deserving of a rediscovery and reappraisal.

Crazily enough, it would "Dune"'s disaster that would kick off Lynch’s greatest and most sustained period of cultural acceptance. In the late Seventies, Lynch wrote a script for a deeply twisted take on the small-town murder mystery genre, a script that had been repeatedly rejected by the major studios for its decidedly dark violence and sexual content. However, Dino De Laurentiis, who by this time had just begun his own independent film studio De Laurentiis Entertainment Group and who still regarded Lynch as a talent despite their previous boondoggle, agreed to finance the film and even gave Lynch total control in exchange for a pay cut. 

The film, of course, was “Blue Velvet.” When it premiered in the fall of 1986, it set off a seismic charge in the film world, its reverberations still being felt to this day. Generally regarded as one of the greatest movies of the decade and Lynch’s finest work, this noir-inspired examination of the dark and lurid things hiding just beneath the surface of even the most idealized settings brought together a twisty and compelling plot, strong performances (including career-defining work from Isabella Rossellini and Dennis Hopper, whose turn as the villainous Frank Booth is one of the most terrifying things ever put before a movie camera), a stunning visual style, weirdo humor and the kind of things that we don’t like to talk about in public into one perfect whole. Granted, it was an enormously divisive project—and continues to be one—but even those who were put off by it generally admitted that Lynch was an enormously talented filmmaker. Although it may have been skunked at the Oscars—Lynch received its only nomination for Best Director—it has stood the test of time better than almost any movie that won any of the top awards during that decade.

In 1990, he expanded his cultural cachet even further with an unexpected move into television with “Twin Peaks,” a mélange of murder mystery, small-town drama, soap opera, dark comedy and surrealism that captured the imagination of the public in ways that not even Lynch could have anticipated. Although the show would only last for a season and a half before leaving the airwaves, it broke new ground in the medium and continues to be regarded as one of the greatest and most influential TV shows ever produced. Then to top it all off, his next film, an adaptation of Barry Gifford’s dark and brutal novel “Wild at Heart,” had a tumultuous premiere at the 1990 Cannes Film Festival—around the time that “Twin Peaks” was at the apex of the shadow it cast upon the culture—and it won the coveted Palme d’Or. A backlash was inevitable and when the film debuted in theaters later that summer, it was largely pasted by critics that Lynch had simply offered up a standard-issue road movie that he tried to gussy up with high levels of sex, violence and by-now-expected bits of weirdness. The reception may have struck some people as being little more than sour grapes but in this particular case, the naysayers kind of had a point. The film is kind of an empty exercise in style, sort of fun to watch the first time around but which fails to hold up on repeat viewings.

The basic story is of star-crossed lovers Sailor (Nicolas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern) hitting the road in a bid for freedom while being pursued by forces, including Lula’s crazed mother (Diane Ladd, Dern’s real-life mother, in a role that would earn her an Oscar nomination) determined to keep them apart was solid enough but for once, the strange elements that Lynch brought to the material (ranging from images of brutal violence to “Wizard of Oz” references to the presence of Crispin Glover in a cameo that was weird even by his standards) felt tacked on, as if he was trying to make a “David Lynch”-style movie in the way that others would attempt to do over the years. Now, the film still has some memorable moments to it: the scene in which Sailor and Lula come across car crash victim Sherilyn Fenn, who babbles about bobby pins even as the life slowly oozes out of her via a soon-to-be-fatal head wound is incredibly powerful; the twisted sort-of seduction scene between Dern a super-sleazy Willem Dafoe is super-creepy. Cage and Dern are also certainly committed to the film with their performances (Cage’s pseudo-Elvis turn, including performances of a couple of the King’s classics, remains one of the most audacious in a career not exactly hurting for such things). But in all honesty, if you had to miss one of Lynch’s films and not feel as if you were really missing out on something special, this would be the one.

At this point, Lynch was running the risk of becoming dangerously overexposed and the chilly critical receptions to “Wild at Heart” and the second and final season of “Twin Peaks” didn’t help matters much. Something clearly had to give and yet, it would be Lynch himself who would bring the whole thing to a crashing halt by taking his most beloved creation—“Twin Peaks”—and wreaking havoc upon it in such a way that even his most devoted fans looked upon what he had wrought with horror. When the series left the air in 1991 with several plot threads still dangling, there were rumors that a feature film tying everything up might be in the offing and about a year later, “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me” was having its world premiere at the Cannes Film Festival. As it turned out, while the film contained a few elements that tied into—while not exactly explaining—the infamously oblique finale to the series—the film turned out to be mostly a prequel that, after a prologue involving a couple of FBI agents (Chris Isaak and Kiefer Sutherland) arriving in a small Oregon town to investigate the murder of teen prostitute Teresa Banks a year earlier, chronicled the last seven days of the life of troubled teen queen Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) before the murder that would serve as the instigator for the show. This meant, of course, that viewers were settling down to watch a film that would end with a teenage girl being brutalized and murdered—grim enough on its own but absolutely ghastly if you watched the series and knew the horrifying circumstances surrounding that crime. Beyond the bleakness of its basic plot, the film seemed to go out of its way to alienate fans of the series—many of the show’s regular cast of characters either turned up in blink-and-you-miss-them cameos or, as was the case with fan favorite Audrey Horne (Sherilyn Fenn), were conspicuous by their absence and, with a couple of brief exceptions (such as Sutherland’s Stan Laurel impersonation and Harry Dean Stanton at his Harry Dean Stanton-ist), there was virtually none of the oddball humor that helped to make the show so distinctive.

At Cannes, the film sharply divided audiences but when it arrived in America a couple months later, it was almost universally hated by critics and audiences alike, especially by fans of the show who looked upon it as some kind of personal betrayal. I was one of those who hated it when it first came out, but with the passage of time, I now consider it one of Lynch’s major works. Free of having to maintain the notion of moving a mystery narrative forward, Lynch uses the apparatus of the show to explore his favorite theme of the darkness lying beneath the banal beauty of the American dream, this time focusing on the terrifying prospect that even the ones that you love and depend on have that capacity for evil within them and are ready to turn on you in the most incomprehensibly monstrous ways imaginable—even the dubious comfort of the supernatural elements hinted at in the series as a sort of explanation for the grimmest of horrors is seen here as a desperate attempt by people to make some kind of sense out of the senseless. 

This particular narrative also allowed Lynch the opportunity to let the character of Laura Palmer, who became a cultural icon even though we never got a chance to see her alive (save for a few fleeting moments on video) during the run of the show, speak for herself and demonstrate the presence that we knew only through her absence. Given the chance to bring Laura to life at last, Sheryl Lee came through with one of the very best performances to be had in Lynch’s entire filmography and certainly the most heartbreaking—she is put through the wringer throughout in a series of increasingly painful and wounding scenes, the kind of material that most actresses would go to great lengths to avoid, as she grows closer and closer to her annihilation. The pain and barely controlled hysteria she demonstrates throughout becomes increasingly palpable until we find ourselves in the tricky position of almost wanting to see her put out of her misery just to give her some peace at last. Make no mistake about it, “Fire Walk with Me” is grim from start to finish but rather than being considered an aberration best left forgotten, it should be looked at as what it really is—one of his truly essential films.

After the slate-cleaning of “Fire Walk with Me,” it would be five years before there would be a new Lynch film, "Lost Highway." Inspired in part by, of all things, the OJ Simpson murder case, the neo-noir began with Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette as married couple Fred and Renee who begin receiving a series of creepy videotapes featuring their own house. After attending a strange party where Fred is accosted by a Mystery Man (an unforgettable Robert Blake) who insists that he is in Fred’s house as they speak and even has him call his house to prove it, Fred wakes up the next morning to the sight of a new videotape showing him standing above Renee’s mutilated body. Although he has no recollection of the crime, he is convicted of murder and sentenced to death, where he is plagued by visions of that mystery guest and a dark highway. One day, Fred’s cell is opened but he is gone and auto mechanic Pete Drayton (Balthazar Getty) is sitting in his place. Having committed no crime himself, Pete is freed and goes back to work at his garage, where he is taken under the wing of Mr. Eddy (Robert Loggia), a vicious gangster and strict adherent of highway safety rules. It turns out that Mr. Eddy has a mistress named Alice (also played by Arquette) who winds up taking an increasingly dangerous shine to Pete. Could it be that Pete is really Fred, Alice is really Renee and history is about to repeat itself again? Well, if it could be answered that simply, it probably wouldn’t be a David Lynch movie now, would it?

This is a puzzle film, but it is one in which Lynch has supplied either too many or too few pieces for everything to fit comfortably together. And yet, as a meditation on the darkness that lies within us all—the kind that could lead us to do things that we would do anything to forget, including developing entire different identities—it is an undeniably provocative work. The film is also notable for the number of strong performances that it contains—Patricia Arquette does some of the best work of her entire career as Renee/Alice, Robert Loggia is hilariously fearsome as Mr. Eddy (the scene in which he waylays a tailgater and brutally beats him while quizzing him on the proper amount of space he should maintain between a car ahead of him on the road is a real doozy) and Robert Blake is absolutely terrifying as the Mystery Man, a role that now has additional creepy resonance for being his last major role before himself becoming embroiled in a case where he was accused of murdering his estranged wife. Like “Eraserhead,” perhaps the closest thing to it in Lynch’s filmography, “Lost Highway” is maybe not the ideal starting point for viewers unfamiliar with Lynch but for others, this is another work ripe for rediscovery.

Despite all the twists and turns that Lynch’s career had taken by this point, who could have possibly expected that his next project would be, of all things, a G-rated film made for Disney? It may have sounded like some kind of joke but not only did “The Straight Story” (1999) turn out to be completely serious, it proved to be a startlingly sincere and emotionally direct work. The film told the true story of Alvin Straight (Richard Farnsworth), an elderly man whose brother (Harry Dean Stanton) has just suffered a stroke. He is determined to pay his brother a visit in order to make amends to him. But since he no longer qualifies for a driver’s license, he takes his riding lawnmower—top speed of about 5 m.p.h.—hooks up a trailer and proceeds to use that to make the 240-mile journey, making the acquaintance of a number of people along the way ranging from a pregnant runaway to a group of bikers to a fellow war veteran to whom he confesses a memory of inadvertently shooting one of his fellow soldiers. 

With such a premise, this is a film that could have easily slipped into overt silliness or pure mawkishness but, as the title suggests, Lynch has enough faith in the material to play it in a completely straightforward manner (though there are some nice laughs to be had, especially in the scene involving a woman who can’t seem to avoid hitting deer with her car) that also extends to the simple and unadorned style in which he has filmed it. In fact, the only thing about the film that has much in common with his other movies is his ability to get yet another career-defining performance from one of his actors. In this case it's Richard Farnsworth, who culminated a career that stretched back to working as a stuntman on “The Ten Commandments” with a turn that is so utterly authentic throughout that it almost feels at times as if we are watching a documentary unfolding before our eyes. This is a riveting, touching and utterly unexpected work that will leave even the most jaded hipsters brushing away a tear or two as the two estranged brothers are finally reunited.

Which brings us, at long last, to Mulholland Dr.,” the 2001 head-spinner that captured the imagination of the public like no Lynch project since the early episodes of “Twin Peaks”—perhaps appropriate since the film itself was famously born out of the ashes of the pilot for a proposed TV series that was rejected by ABC. There will be no lucubration on the plot of the film at this time, partly because of the assumption that anyone reading this article has probably already seen it and partly because even the briefest recitation of the plot particulars runs the risk of turning into a long and extended attempt to interpret the details and explain What It All Means. Instead, I will merely offer up three specific points about it and leave the rest up to you. 

First, I would argue that this may be Lynch’s masterpiece to date—a work that beautifully summarizes all of the themes and obsessions that have been driving him throughout his career in ways that feel fresh and viable rather than a rehash of old ideas. Next, I would like to suggest that the next time that someone puts together a list of the all-time greatest performances in screen history, they make sure to remember Naomi Watts’ staggering work here as Betty, the impossibly sweet-natured small-town ingénue who comes to Hollywood seeking fame and fortune and becomes embroiled in a mystery involving an amnesiac femme fatale (Laura Harring) that she befriends. Like the film as a whole, this is a role that requires an actress able to play on several different levels, often at the same time, and no matter what the challenges, the then-unknown Watts hits every note so perfectly that even those who were mystified by the work as a whole conceded her greatness (with the singular exception of Oscar voters, who gave Lynch a third nomination for Best Director but inexplicably neglected to nominate her). Finally, while much has been written about the stunning erotic content on display, I would simply like to mention that the film, in conjunction with all that, also offers up the single funniest amnesiac lesbian joke in the history of the cinema.

Having made a film that served as a powerful and deeply personal career summation and reestablished his cultural cachet at the same time, what could Lynch possibly do for an encore? In the case of “Inland Empire” (2006), which would prove to be his last feature to date, he would not only make a defiant stand against the traditions of conventional narrative as he did with “Eraserhead” and “Lost Highway,” he would essentially take a blowtorch to the very way in which films were made. Instead of preparing a screenplay that he and his cast and crew would work from, he would write random scenes and then hand the dialogue to the actors each day, which meant that they had no real idea of what they were doing from day to day. Adding to the experimental nature of the film, Lynch, who funded much of the shooting out of his own pocket and later handled the distribution, shot the entire thing on commercial-grade standard definition video camera, giving the project a look that was both familiar and oddly disconcerting. At first, there are the glimmers of a plot—an actress (Laura Dern) lands a role in an upcoming movie opposite an actor (Justin Theroux) known for romancing his leading ladies only to discover that it is a remake of a Polish film that was never completed and deemed to be cursed following the murder of its two leads, who themselves were having an affair. But as the production continues, the actress finds the line between real life and her role blurring as her world begins collapsing upon itself. As things grow increasingly hallucinatory, two aspects combine to not only prevent the film from completely spinning off into the ozone but keep viewers utterly transfixed throughout its three-hour running time—the career-best performance from Laura Dern, an oftentimes underrated actress who brings real humanity and emotion to the increasingly odd proceedings and Lynch’s direction, which is formally daring enough to allow the material to go to places that few films have ever dared to attempt but done with enough control to keep it all together. The end result may indeed be simply too much for casual moviegoers and even students of Lynch’s work may need to watch it at least a couple of times before they begin to spark to its particular rhythms. But those that do will be amply rewarded with a film that is truly a one-of-a-kind experience.

“Inland Empire” so completely flies in the face of audience expectations—even Lynch’s audience—and so thoroughly violates all the conventions of commercial filmmaking that one is left wondering what he could possibly do for a follow-up. In the decade since its release, they have been kept waiting because while Lynch has kept busy—painting, writing, recording music, promoting his beloved Transcendental Meditation and, most notably, writing and directing a number of short films as well as the upcoming “Twin Peaks” revival—there's no word of a new film. He is 71 now, an age where most filmmakers typically begin to retire to the Lifetime Achievement Award circuit or make films that merely regurgitate familiar themes and past glories. That may be the case with Lynch, who clearly has nothing left to prove as a director, but I like to think that he has at least one more work in him of the kind with the potential to shake, startle and provoke moviegoers around the world as he has done so many times in the past. If not, then at least he has left us with one of the most singular bodies of work of any artist of our time, one that will continue to inspire, amaze and outrage audiences without losing any of their mysterious beauty for decades to come.

The IFC Center's “Films of David Lynch” retrospective runs March 24-April 6. All screenings will take place at the IFC Center. For information on showtimes, ticket availability and more, click here.

Peter Sobczynski

A moderately insightful critic, full-on Swiftie and all-around bon vivant, Peter Sobczynski, in addition to his work at this site, is also a contributor to The Spool and can be heard weekly discussing new Blu-Ray releases on the Movie Madness podcast on the Now Playing network.

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