David Lynch at 75

Image Credit: Laoise Tarrant

Sophia Finucane explores the work and lasting influence of one of America’s most iconoclastic artists.

David Lynch: director, writer, painter, musician, sound designer, actor, singer and photographer, has recently reached the platinum milestone of turning 75 years old. The lauded filmmaker has, of course, produced the hit ABC show Twin Peaks (1990-1992, 2017), along with classic films like Eraserhead (1977), The Elephant Man (1980), Blue Velvet (1986) and Mulholland Drive (2001). In more recent years, Lynch has turned to Netflix as a distributor of his 2017 surrealist short, What Did Jack Do? and regularly updates anyone who wishes to watch on the weather and the ‘number of the day’ on his YouTube channel. His latest update, on February 1st, which garnered much anticipation with some suspecting a new season of Twin Peaks, turned out to be that he was debating taking a break from his YouTube videos, but decided against it, as everyone had been so kind in the comments. Lynch seems to only continue to communicate ideas, affect and observations as he ages, and any argument that his work is indiscernible becomes less and less solid.

1977’s Eraserhead, often analysed to be about the paralysing fears of child-rearing, begins Lynch’s feature film career off with a bang of body horror and hallucination. In a 2016 documentary, David Lynch: The Art Life, Lynch describes how, upon showing his father some of his art experiments, he replied: “Dave, I don’t think you should ever have children”. However, this idea that some critics have of his work being too dark, and unrealistically-so, for shock value, or indeed that Lynch has a psychotic problem, is untrue. Lynch lived in Philadelphia at the time and saw the rampant crime caused by the severe economic inequality of late-70s America every day. And make no mistake, Lynch celebrates the world in many aspects of his art, but he seems to be merely exhibiting the truths about society that many others actively ignore in their work, especially in Hollywood.

Lynch is seen by many as a defining artist of the postmodern-era

Born in Montana on January 20, 1946, demographically, Lynch is the poster-boy for Baby Boomers. No more is this seen than in Blue Velvet, in which a man on the cusp of real adulthood in the white-picket-fence US of times-gone-by, is introduced to the subversive and cynical world of America behind the post-war veneer. For this reason, Lynch is seen by many as a defining artist of the postmodern-era, alongside masters like Don DeLillo, marking the end of a zeitgeist and asking where we go from there. This complicated relationship with America can be seen to inspire many filmmakers, Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992) being an example, and the ways in which he uses hallucination or nightmare to represent unsettling thoughts inspires late 20th/early 21st American landmarks like The Sopranos (1999-2007). Laura Dern appearing radiant in the darkness in Blue Velvet echoes the introduction of Grace Kelly in Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954). If Blue Velvet is your introduction to Lynch, you could deduce that his work mourns these times gone by. Even learning that Lynch enjoyed a Bob’s Big Boy chocolate milkshake for 7 years in real life could lead you to believe his sentimentality for the old times, but perhaps he is not so simple. 

No female personality, or any personality for that matter, is static, and Lynch is possibly the greatest American director for addressing this truth.

David Lynch encounters the life problems that we all do and responds to them by representing characters in a way that is truthful, laying life out more frankly and honestly than anyone else in the American film industry. No better is this illustrated than in Mulholland Drive. By 2001, Lynch goes all-out representing dreams and reality warped by disillusionment and disorientation. This is neatly encapsulated in the framing he chooses for the infamous scene at Winkie’s diner in which a point of view shot approaching the nightmarish image fills us with dread. However, this aesthetic persists throughout the film. The dreamlike world of Naomi Watts disintegrates into the betrayal and pain of life not turning out the way America promised her it would. Her dreams do not come true. Lynch can be analysed using affect theory perhaps here more than ever, not only in scenes that cause the spectator to jump, cringe and recoil, but scenes of tender sexuality between women that, thankfully, avoid objectification, unlike many, many films made by Lynch’s contemporaries. In this way, Lynch’s women play on the expectations and presumptions of women that Hollywood has created. This is clear in his other works, but perhaps most maturely represented in his 2001 film. No female personality, or any personality for that matter, is static, and Lynch is possibly the greatest American director for addressing this truth. Watts’ character sets the stage for characters like Nina in Darren Aronofsky’s in Black Swan (2010) among others, and once again Lynch is quietly but incredibly influential on many works that follow his.

David Lynch’s day is far from finished. His surrealism lacks pretension, in case anyone made the mistake of thinking otherwise. His famous refusal to divulge in interviews on his plots is not because he ‘wants to seem smart and mysterious,’ but because, as he said himself, “if there’s 100 people in the audience, you’re going to get 100 different interpretations, especially when things get abstract. It’s beautiful. Everybody’s a detective and whatever they come up with is valid in my mind”. And what is more relevant to art as an imitator of life in 2021 than perception being subjective and open to interpretation, expectations leading to disappointment, and small moments of joy or appreciation in a simple day having the potential to be beautiful. Lynch has devoted much of his life to telling people to embark on transcendental meditation, because, in his words; “the human being is an exquisite being, and we have a potential, and that potential is called enlightenment”. Perhaps this message is the most essential aspect of David Lynch for film in his 75th year.