I think every artist can learn something from David Lynch. He is a touchstone for many surrealists, but even more conventional writers and painters can learn something from his combination of visuals and sound. I’ve spent the last year making an odyssey into the majority of his filmography, and I’d highly recommend that you do the same. There is so much to learn from all of his work.
You never forget your first taste of David Lynch. My first proper sampling of his aesthetic came from the music video that he directed for the title song of his album Crazy Clown Time. The mixture of surreal images from the worst party ever and his breathy vocals was like an incantation. Eraserhead, which I watched next, has a similar knack for entrancing you into a dreamlike state. I put it on my laptop, thinking I could watch the first 10 minutes before doing my homework. I ended up watching all 89 minutes in a wide-eyed gulp.
Eraserhead reminded me that black and white photography has a singular beauty. Lynch shot his next film, The Elephant Man, in black and white as well. That movie is a near textbook example of how to take a conventional story and filter it through your own sensibilities. John Merrick’s story could have been a classic tale of a misfit learning to love himself and show society that he has a good heart. Lynch frequently goes in that direction, but he fills this film with so much strangeness and idiosyncratic sentiment that it bears his personal stamp just as much as Blue Velvet does.
I first saw Blue Velvet at the IU Cinema at midnight. The sequence where Ben lip syncs to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” taught me about the power of digressions. An old school editor might have cut it because it doesn’t move the plot along. But its absence would have been glaring, because it is a moment where the strangeness of this film becomes transcendent.
I think Wild at Heart is currently my favorite of his films. I love the creative leaps that Lynch takes in this movie. Few other filmmakers would start a movie by having Nicolas Cage brutally beat a man to death. Lynch’s artistic bravery and his many impeccable shots make this movie more than the story of two young lovers on the run. It becomes a portrait of an artist at a creative peak. Lynch once wrote that “Ideas are like fish. If you want to catch little fish, you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you’ve got to go deeper.” Wild at Heart is one of Lynch’s biggest fish.
As a fan of film noir, I find Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive particularly interesting. They’ve taught me that the old genres I’ve loved are not stone tablets to be worshipped reverently. Instead, they are fluid texts that can be reinterpreted and remixed into modern works. Mulholland Drive in particular melds noir tropes with surrealism and comedy to create something that still feels brand new sixteen years after it first came out.
I have not seen all of Lynch’s films yet. I still have not seen Dune, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, The Straight Story, or Inland Empire. But the Lynch films I have seen have widened my views of what movies can do. They can get under your skin. They can rearrange how you perceive reality. Lynch has shown a wide range of techniques and tricks that I didn’t even know were possible. I hope more artists try them out.
David Lynch: The Art Life directed by Jon Nguyen screened in the International Arthourse Series in May 2017. Two of Lynch’s films have screened in the Midnight Movie Series: Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me.
Jesse Pasternack is a senior at Indiana University and the co-president of the Indiana Student Cinema Guild. He writes about film, television, and pop culture for the Indiana Daily Student. Jesse is a moderator at Michael Moore’s Traverse City Film Festival and a friend of the Doug Loves Movies podcast. He has directed three short films.