With the release of new documentary The Art Life, Getintothis‘ regular David Lynch freak Del Pike compiles a Lynchian Top 10 while he eagerly awaits its release.
The arrival of the trailer for David Lynch: The Art Life, a documentary by Jon Nguyen focusing on the great director’s work outside of feature films, has set the Lynch mob switchboards alight once more.
It has been 10 long years since Lynch’s last feature, the incredible, yet impenetrable INLAND EMPIRE, and fans may feel like they have had their throats cut. The last decade has seen some Lynch activity however, in two breath-taking albums (Crazy Clown Time and The Big Dream) and various ventures into art and photography. The Factory Photographs, an exhibition held at London’s Photographer’s Gallery in 2013, reassured us that our hero was still alive and well. The long wait for the new series of Twin Peaks is almost over (we’re told), and will have more episodes than first promised with more input from Lynch, directing the whole series. A definitive guide by co-producer Mark Frost will also be published this month (as well as an in-store signing right here in Liverpool).
There is so much to treasure and to look forward to that we can almost forgive David Lynch from failing to haunt our cinemas for so long. Nguyen’s film promises to trace Lynch’s equally compelling career as an artist, a subject that has already been explored in Toby Keeler’s 1997 documentary, Pretty as a Picture: The Art of David Lynch, but Nguyen’s film looks to be more in the style of Lynch’s own work.
Lynch turned 70 this year, which feels unbelievable when we consider his youthful exuberance and vivid imagination, particularly in his essential music. Despite starting his feature film career 40 years ago with the seminal Eraserhead, Lynch has made just ten films in that time. The quality has rarely waned and even his more disappointing ventures have given his fans more than enough to devour, dissect and even enjoy.
70 years of age, ten films, a 40 year career, it just seems too tidy, and also too good an opportunity to not present those films in Getintothis rank order. As we are primarily a music site, we are offering you the added bonus of a prime cut of music from each film, an area that Lynch and his collaborators care very much about. Join us in our celebration of one of our greatest living directors and artists.
10. Dune (1984)
Dune is the most un-Lynchian film in the canon and in some ways should not have been made. George Lucas had approached Lynch to direct Return of the Jedi (can you imagine?), but Lynch felt it was not his job to translate Lucas’ vision to the screen. Alejandro Jodorowski, the surrealist wizard filmmaker who had brought cult curios El Topo and The Holy Mountain to midnight audiences in the 70s had been approached to direct Dune, but he too chose to turn down an attractive offer. Dino De Laurentiis had been so impressed with Lynch’s previous work on The Elephant Man that he approached him to direct an adaption of Frank Herbert’s 1965 Sci fi novel.
Trying to place surrealism into an already fantastical environment doesn’t always work and it is easy for an auteur like Lynch to lose his style in the mix, not unlike Tim Burton’s attempt at Planet of the Apes. Dune is lush and astounding and a beautiful thing to look at, but clearly in need of cruel editing. A single sitting of the film can feel like a lifetime and no amount of swashbuckling by Sting or giant sand worms can speed the process along. The film established Lynch’s long standing relationship with Kyle MacLachlan and introduced elements that would re-emerge in later projects, but Dune is definitely one for Lynch fanatics and sci fi heads only, and even then…
The soundtrack by Toto and Brian Eno only adds to the film feeling even more unlike a Lynch project.
9. INLAND EMPIRE (2006)
Sitting in a cinema watching audience members leave at almost regular intervals is no way to enjoy a David Lynch film, but unfortunately this was the fate of INLAND EMPIRE (Yes, always in capitals). A three hour journey into the darkest places that Lynch may have ever travelled, INLAND EMPIRE, does not mix its intentions with a crowd pleasing narrative as previous Lynch titles have, this is Lynch directing from his own wild heart and taking no prisoners. Lynch regular Laura Dern sits at the centre of this intriguing labyrinth, a Hollywood star, working on a cursed script with director Jeremy Irons. The cohesive plot ends about there.
With scenes shot in Poland (in Polish), and subplots that seem to have no link with the Dern thread, the only relief comes in the Rabbits scenes. Taken from Lynch’s own bizarre web sit-com Rabbits, a series of short episodes featuring Mulholland Dv. actors in rabbit heads reciting seemingly random lines to canned laughter. It kind of works.
In INLAND EMPIRE sensations of tension and relief are played with like never before. The closing titles which feature Nina Simone’s Sinnerman played in its lengthy entirety over a dreamy party sequence with a monkey, is perhaps the film’s most contrasting moment. The Locomotion sequence similarly adds much needed variety to the dark tone of the narrative, but feel the silence at the end, you can reach out and touch it, Go on.
8. The Straight Story (1999)
David Lynch makes a Disney film. Indeed. Not Buena Vista like Pulp Fiction, a true Disney movie, but clearly it’s no Frozen, (lthough it does feel a bit like Finding Nemo to be fair). Ex-stuntman Richard Farnsworth plays Alvin Straight an old timer who needs to visit his dying brother Lyle, played briefly but elegantly by Harry Dean Stanton. It’s not safe though for Alvin to travel by car so he sets off on a John Deere petrol mower. So follows one of the most unusual and moving road movies imaginable.
It was a film that split audiences, not weird enough for Lynch fans and too slow and grown up for kids, but despite the lack of weird, it still feels more Lynch than Dune. The setting could easily be down the road from Twin Peaks and the journey covers similar landscapes to that other great road movie, Wild at Heart. Like in every great road movie along the way, many characters emerge and befriend Alvin, and it does become a little too saccharine as he rarely meets a bad egg.
Tinged with even more sadness as Farnsworth (who really does look like Toy Story’s Stinky Pete), died soon after the film’s completion. He was nominated for a best actor Oscar for the film and deservedly so. Sissy Spacek as Alvin’s daughter Rose is also incredible.
The most curious entry in Lynch’s body of feature film work, but well worth a look if you missed it first time round.
The soundtrack by long time Lynch collaborator Angelo Badalamenti is absolutely beautiful; Laurens Walking is currently soundtracking the Esso: Journeys That Matter campaign, a campaign that is a homage to The Straight Story.
7. Wild at Heart (1990)
It seems criminal putting films like Wild at Heart and The Straight Story so far back on the list, but this is a sign of how great this body of work is. Perhaps Lynch’s most entertaining film certainly contains one of Nicolas Cage’s best performances as the Elvis-lite Sailor Ripley. Straight out of the penitentiary for murder, Ripley has a dark history with the Fortune family, but that doesn’t stop him hitting the road with his sweetheart, Lula Fortune (Laura Dern).
With Lula’s Mom out of her depth, hiring killers to track Sailor down, Wild at Heart becomes a frantic road movie. Unlike The Straight Story, the road to heaven is lined with bad eggs, including the hideous rotten toothed Bobby Peru, played menacingly by Willem Dafoe.
It’s a violent, thrilling rollercoaster that balances gut wrenching brutality with hilarious comic interludes (Crispin Glover’s episode as weird Cousin Dale is unmissable). The soundtrack is so cool it stings. Angelo Badalamenti mixed with Gene Vincent, Them and Chris Isaak effortlessly roll in the background against a narrative taken straight from 1950s Roughie movies.
The film has been criticised for being cheesy and populist, but that really misses the point. It is a homage to exploitation cinema and has so much style it cannot fail to entertain. Lula’s quote “This whole world’s wild at heart but weird on top” sums it up perfectly.
6. The Elephant Man (1980)
The film that brought Lynch into the mainstream was only his second feature, and it wasn’t long before he was back in the shadows. Unlikely producer, Mel Brooks had seen Eraserhead and imagined the grey, industrial approach as a backdrop to the story of Joseph (John in the film) Merrick, the Victorian Freak of London’s East End; The Elephant Man.
The film was an award winning success, and despite its tendency to adjust the true story of Merrick for entertainment value, won audiences over with John Hurt’s ground-breaking performance in the title role, and Anthony Hopkins as the do-gooding medic Frederick Treves.
The Elephant Man does follow on from Eraserhead in style, and although the true life narrative makes it difficult for Lynch to flex his surreal muscles, he manages to find windows of opportunity in Merrick’s dreams and memories and in the curves of his deformed flesh.
Meticulous sets of Victorian London are recreated with bellowing puffs of steam and a sea of grotesquely made up extras, and the carnival soundtrack by John Morris adds to the thick atmosphere. The haunting theme always brings a chill to the spine, particularly when accelerated and made violent to accompany the sequence where drunken revellers break into Merrick’s hospital room. A truly moving film.
5. Lost Highway (1997)
An overlooked film in Lynch’s back catalogue, and God knows why. Starting with the frenetic I’m Deranged from Bowie’s Outside album, played over a speeding tarmac in the dead of night sets the film off to a gripping start.
Jazz musician Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) is haunted by VHS tapes pushed through his letterbox that suggest a stalker in his house. When a tape arrives that seemingly captures Fred murdering his wife Renee (Patricia Arquette), things start to get messy. This, along with Mulholland Dr. and INLAND EMPIRE is the first of Lynch’s films to change the characters midway through the film. Fred becomes teen rebel, Pete (Balthazar Getty) and Renee becomes gangster’s moll Alice.
The brooding violence and the appearances of Henry Rollins as a prison guard and Marilyn Manson as a porn star, add to the 90s alternative / gothic feel, which does make Lost Highway feel a little dated. It does however contain some of Lynch’s best work and demands repeated viewings.
Fred’s house, full of terrifyingly dark shadows and furniture made by Lynch is an unlikely highlight in this already crazed film.
4. Mulholland Dr. (2001)
Following some of the same themes as Lost Highway, Mulholland Dr. follows the fortunes of Betty (Naomi Watts), a wide eyed wannabe actress, arriving in Hollywood in search of stardom. A chance encounter with amnesiac Rita (Laura Harring) leads to another case of lost identity, set against the cut-throat world of studio filmmaking. The film bridges a narrative space between Lost Highway and INLAND EMPIRE, and surprisingly became a box office sensation, despite its impossible plot twists.
The film is Lynch’s most lavishly produced to date and almost imitates the films that it satires. It’s difficult to believe that when filming started the intention was for it to be a TV pilot. Attractive leads and a much talked about lesbian scene possibly attracted non Lynch acolytes to cinemas, but the fact remains it is Lynch’s most critically acclaimed picture so far.
Lynch’s theme of singers performing in front of velvet curtains that started with Eraserhead’s girl in the radiator and has remained ever since, takes a dramatic turn in Mulholland Dv. with the devastating delivery of Roy Orbison’s Crying (llorando), in the Club Silencio. The film also contains one of Cinema’s most effective jump scares in what has become known as the notorious Diner Scene.
With a box office hit like this, only David Lynch could go on to make something as inaccessible as INLAND EMPIRE.
I’ve Told Every Little Star, sung by Melissa George (Angel from Home and Away) is a direct glimpse into David Lynch’s head on one of his 50s days.
3. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992)
Overlooked as a TV spin off – bad idea. This is one of David Lynch’s most intense and complete pieces of work. Unfortunately the film came following the demise of the TV show, of which many viewers turned off after the early reveal of Laura Palmer’s killer.
The film is a prequel, and deals with letting fans see what really happened in the days leading to her death. In a stroke of genius the film includes its own prequel to the Dale Cooper story in a hilarious segment at the start. Chris Isaak and Keifer Sutherland as FBI agents Chet and Sam, are already on the trail of the missing Teresa Banks and find themselves up against the redneck sheriff of Deer Meadow and cranky trailer-park owner Harry Dean Stanton. An encounter with Lynch as the much loved deaf FBI chief Gordon Cole, adds to the calm before the storm. The sequence ends and the familiar TV theme starts up, it’s very much a fan film but works equally as a stand-alone.
The actual title sequence sees the white noise of a TV broken by an axe penetrating the set, which immediately tells us this is going to tear all we know apart.
A mesmerising cameo from David Bowie as Agent Philip Jeffries and extensive scenes of the red curtains and zig zag floors of the White Lodge create an unnerving atmosphere and the added disturbing plot of Palmer’s murder makes for a dark and uncomfortable experience.
The recent blu ray box set release that contains both the TV show and film also boasts extensive deleted scenes (The Missing Pieces) that are well worth investigating. In chronological order, the 90 minutes of extras provide virtually an alternative cut of the film, with lots more Bowie to boot.
Angelo Badalamenti and David Lynch’s The Pink Room captures the dark nature of the film beautifully.
2. Blue Velvet (1986)
The film that made this guy realise there was more to films than just entertainment. Blue Velvet on its release was an unparalleled tour de force. The first time since Eraserhead that Lynch had provided an original story and it is a succinct trip into his mind, re-visiting his childhood in small town America and the synthetic wonder of the American Dream of the post war years of his youth.
Opening with the now iconic satire of sideways America, seen through the picket fences of Suburban Lumberton, the story follows Jeffrey Beaumont, a young man, at home from Uni to look after his sick father’s hardware store, but disturbed by the discovery of a severed ear in a field.
The symbolic ear leads Jeffrey into a Film Noir narrative, held captive by both the schoolgirl charm of Sandy (Laura Dern) and the exotic nightclub singer, Dorothy (Isabella Rossellini), pulling him to and fro from the dark to the light. The devouring beetles we see at the start of the film, hidden beneath the grass of Jeffrey’s lawn suggest that there is evil lurking below the idyllic suburbia.
When Jeffrey’s investigation brings him face to face with the sadistic Frank Booth, a career best performance from Dennis Hopper, it’s time to start peering at the film through your fingers. Hopper is terrifying, simple as.
Everything about Blue Velvet works, the faux 50s setting (even though its set in the 80s?), the ridiculous level of sadism, the humour and warmth and the mechanical robin, all fit perfectly to make this the most typical of Lynch’s mid period films. It the best place to start too, Lynch in a nutshell.
The mimed performance by Dean Stockwell in the brothel of Roy Orbison’s In Dreams really does sum up the harrowing sugar coated feel of the film.
1. Eraserhead (1976)
To find the true essence of David Lynch you need to go back to the start. One of the purest films ever made, Eraserhead remains unequalled as an example of surrealism on the most beautiful level. It is not a traditional kind of beauty, it is dark, menacing, disturbing, otherworldly, but still beautiful. In the oily reflections of the factories and the shadows and light created by faulty electronics, in the exquisitely lit portraits of the actors and the grain and dust of the atmosphere, Lynch creates a place that can only exist in his mind. Any similarities since are just copy.
Henry Spencer, a print factory worker on a home vacation finds himself faced with impending fatherhood. A meeting with his girlfriend’s family presents a dysfunctional family, hilarious and terrifying in equal measure. The baby, when it arrives is a mutant and it doesn’t take long before Mary X flees to leave Henry in control of the monstrous child’s upbringing.
The film deals with Lynch’s own anxieties as a young father, raising Jennifer, now a director in her own right. Henry’s methods of dealing with his anxieties include fantasising about a lady who lives in his radiator, singing about how “In Heaven, everything is fine” whilst squashing sperm with her heels.
In an episode that involves a trial, a severed head and a pencil factory, there is humour, but nothing can prepare you for the sheer horror of the finale.
Without a doubt, the main attraction here is Jack (John) Nance as Henry, perpetually startled with his shock of black frizzy hair, the most iconic image in cult cinema surely. His slow delivery of lines and constant bewilderment reveals a character like no other. Nance would go on to appear in many other Lynch productions, but none would bring him the love and affection of fans as Henry Spencer.
The sound design of the film is unsettling throughout, with lurching, wheezing industrial symphonies and the strained gramophone crackle of Fats Waller. To fully appreciate Eraserhead it needs to be heard properly as the sound is just as important here as the vision. A good sound system makes this a truly visceral experience.
Eraserhead is not just David Lynch’s finest work but also one of the greatest films ever made. The seed of everything that came since can be seen in this dark and wonderful film and in Lynch’s 70th year it is absolutely the right time to go back there and experience it once more.