David Lynch: A Filmography Retrospective

Eraserhead & The Elephant Man essays written by Osiris Chacona; Dune, Blue Velvet, & Wild at Heart essays written by Diego Garcia; Lost Highway essay written by Ibrahim Nevin


Eraserhead (1977):

Eraserhead (1977)

David Lynch’s feature-film debut, Eraserhead, is a surreal masterpiece; a mind-twisting, apropos debut to one of the most puzzling and fascinating filmographies in cinema history. The opening scene is one of the most interesting sex scenes ever, if you could even call it a ‘sex scene’. The horror starts at the very beginning of life, with the conception of the child. As many have said, Eraserhead at its core is a story about being a father, and the horrors that come with raising an unwanted child. While true, this movie is also about how depressing modern society is. Lynch has said the setting of Eraserhead was inspired by his time living in Philadelphia, which he described as having an atmosphere of “violence, hate and filth”. You feel trapped in this situation with Henry because of how bleak his surroundings are.

In the world of Eraserhead, it seems there is no hope, until there is. The Lady in the Radiator (Laurel Near) is one of the most polarizing characters in cinematic history. To some, she represents Henry's (Jack Nance) desire to kill himself. I, however, have a more optimistic outlook of her representation of hope and escapism. It’s more than understandable to think of her as an allegory for Henry's suicidal desires, with her singing the song In Heaven (Everything Is Fine). But, to me, I think she’s saying that on this earth, there is a place where you will be happy, no matter how far away it seems, there is a possibility of you being happy. The radiator also represents the one area of his apartment where it is warm, where he can be safe from the cold outside. When we first enter the radiator and the Lady starts dancing, she squashes sperm with her feet and giggles, signifying to Henry that this is a place without a worry of children. Despite this brief glimpse of happiness, it is cut short with Henry being decapitated, and his head being used as an eraser, hence the title. Although Henry longs to be optimistic and dreams of a life away from his child and surroundings, he is still part of a system, part of the eraser factory. Despite being an incredibly unsettling film, Eraserhead still manages to have a good sense of humor. Little things can make the audience laugh, such as Henry’s awkwardness, or when the elevator doors take a little too long to close. But, the dinner scene with Henry’s girlfriend and her parents is simply hilarious.

“The radiator also represents the one area of his apartment where it is warm, where he can be safe from the cold outside.”

That being said, I could see how ‘surrealism’ can go a bit too far for some. Scenes like the infamous “dinner scene” with the chicken moving and bleeding almost seem to be weird for the sake of being weird. I don’t think Lynch had an intended metaphor or meaning for every single scene. However, there is a lot of intent and purpose to most of the film.

Eraserhead (1977)
At points the film can feel a bit padded out, it feels like they had a little under what would be feature length and added a few extra scenes to fill up runtime, like in the opening scene where Henry is walking to his apartment.

Despite my minor criticisms with Eraserhead, it is still my favorite Lynch film and is one of my all-time favorites. A fantastic way to begin a filmmaking career.

The Elephant Man (1980):

Elephant Man (1980)

  The Elephant Man is an essential film in Lynch’s filmography because it feels much more genuine compared to his other works. I would consider myself, often, a cynic when it comes to films, particularly when movies try to tug on my heart strings. However, I don’t have an issue with it here because the film does such a good job at making you empathize with this character. It's easy to show bad things happening to a character and think the audience will connect with them. The real challenge is making you understand what a character wants, their hopes and dreams, and what is stopping them from achieving those things. The Elephant Man excels at making you not just feel bad, but truly empathizing with this character.

“The film asks some interesting questions about exploitation and how humans see each other.”

The only main issue I have with The Elephant Man is it doesn’t really feel like a Lynch film. While there are certainly moments in the film that are undoubtedly “Lynchian”, (the dream sequences) the main narrative is much more conventional than I am used to with a Lynch film. However, Lynch’s cynical side and his disdain for humanity still seeps into this film with the character of Bytes (Freddie Jones)

Elephant Man (1980)
Despite the film not being very ‘Lynchian’, it proves that he knows how to make a great feature film, and that Eraserhead was no fluke. This film is solid all around, great cinematography, incredible acting, and good pacing. The film asks some interesting questions about exploitation and how humans see each other.

Dune (1984):

Dune (1984)

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer.”

One wonders what direction Lynch’s career would’ve taken had Dune been successful, and not the critical and commercial “flop” that it turned out to be in 1984. After turning down the opportunity to direct Return of the Jedi, it was an unexpected decision to select another sci-fi/adventure film. Especially one that had been languishing in development hell for years after other filmmakers such as Alejandro Jodorowsky and Ridley Scott had faltered in their quests to bring Frank Herbert’s epic novel to the big screen.

Although Lynch dealt with numerous production problems, such as failing electricity and numerous crew members falling ill, the true compromising issue came in the form of the film’s final cut. Lynch’s original version clocked in at around three hours, but producer Dino De Laurentiis and Universal demanded a more concise two-hour version. Their intent was to release a “hit” on the level of Star Wars for a more mature audience in mind. This led to multiple scenes being left out in favor of new scenes of exposition being spliced in, including a new intro and narration from Princess Irulan (Virginia Madsen). This all, without a doubt, compromised the final product, which Lynch once described as “such a sadness”. Instead of letting us become immersed in the world on screen, we instead are bogged down with voice-over that practically spoon feeds us everything we need to know. It all tends to feel very incomplete, with large chunks of plot and character arcs missing, overtaking any potential engagement with the audience, on an emotional level. From a visual standpoint, the film provides some gorgeous imagery with its impeccable art direction and cinematography, but so many of the key special effects shots have dated tremendously, especially in comparison to what ILM was capable of at that time.

“From a visual standpoint,
the film provides some
gorgeous imagery with its
impeccable art direction
and cinematography”

Despite the aformentioned, I don’t intend for this to be a hit piece on Lynch’s Dune, rather an examination of why it’s an important piece of his filmography. Most tend to discard it as an “anomaly” in an otherwise near-perfect catalogue, but there’s a broad canvas here that Lynch uses to the best of his capabilities. From grand baroque interiors for the royal House Atreides, to ghastly green industrial hellholes for House Harkonnen, to golden yellow sand and orange skies for the planet Arrakis. The versatility in the film’s visual language is what makes it so captivating. Lynch’s work post-Blue Velvet heavily utilizes imagery from post-war 1950’s America. In its place, Dune takes imagery from all across the board, including the Atriedes’ Russian military uniforms and the French cyberpunk aesthetic of the Sardaukar troopers. H.R. Giger had previously put together concept art for Jodorowsky and Scott’s versions of the film, which -- while stunning in its scope and designs, just wasn’t feasible in bringing to the screen. However, his design for the sandworm seems to have carried over into Lynch’s version, leading to an iconic sequence of Paul Atriedes (Kyle MacLachlan) taming the beast in a similar fashion to Roosevelt on horseback. All these separate elements that blend together as one distinct pallet across multiple landscapes/worlds gives it an edge over the majority of other science-fiction films from that era.
Another noticeable aspect of Dune that makes it an important Lynch milestone is its introduction/return of prominent actors who would go on to become staples of his filmography. This was the first of his many collaborations with Kyle MacLachlan, who makes his film debut here as Paul...
Dune (1984)
He went on to be the lead in both Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks, arguably becoming Lynch’s most iconic lead man. Brad Dourif and Dean Stockwell, who would both go on to appear in Blue Velvet, are featured here as Piter De Vries and Doctor Wellington Yush, respectively. Frequent Lynch collaborator Jack Nance (Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Wild At Heart, Twin Peaks, Lost Highway) appears in a small role as the Harkonnen captain Iakin Nafud. Freddie Jones (The Elephant Man, Wild At Heart) appears here as Thufur Awat.

“Instead of letting us become immersed in the world on screen, we instead are bogged down with voice-over that practically spoon feeds us everything we need to know.”

Lastly, Dune partially sets the tone for what was to come in the rest of Lynch’s filmography. Having already delved into extreme surreal imagery with his previous two efforts, this film marks the beginning of the juxtaposition between conventional narrative arcs/settings and abstract images/ideas that would define the rest of his career. A gold-plated throne room is tread upon by a giant mind-reading slug encased in a portable glass tank. A tribal duel to the death between two warriors transpires in a jarringly barbaric death by knife through the bottom jaw. An obese aristocrat receives facial injections for his half-past rotten facial sores and retains the ability to float in the air.

Dune (1984)

Dreams are a key element in Paul Atriedes’s character arc. Throughout the film, he frequently has visions of future events such as his voyage to Arrakis and his future lover, Chani (Sean Young). These dream sequences are, in my opinion, the highlight of the film. Lynch seems to have free rein here, throwing all these abstract images together in a way that works to progress the narrative forward. It does more to clue the audience in on what’s going on than any tedious voice-over could ever attempt to.

Despite the mixed reactions that Dune still receives from fans of Lynch and filmgoers overall, I tend to still view it as a net positive, despite its flaws. If anything, it cemented his continuous fight for final cut at all costs, a position that would never be budged on for the rest of his career. The film also set some precedents for his stylistic progression as an artist. We’d see many of these tropes again, just not in the way that we expected…

Blue Velvet (1986):

Blue Velvet (1986)

“Now it’s dark…”

Writing this as part of the retrospective, I sit here faced with a mild dilemma.

What can you possibly say about Blue Velvet that hasn’t already been said before? What possible themes or tropes could you dissect that haven’t already been picked apart to death by every film critic, student, professor, etc.?

We all know that it’s an exploration of the dark underbelly that lies underneath the idyllic Rockwell-esque American society, but it’s the way Lynch contrasts these light and dark elements that make it stand out in the annals of American cinema. Our central protagonists and antagonists are complete inverses of each other, drawing an uncomfortable parallel between these two worlds that leaves both arcs intertwined.

The light aspects of the film fall under a completely saturated, almost child-like glance at 1950’s suburban America. A nostalgic era where red roses bloomed against white picket fences and blue skies, your neighbors were practically family, and it was safe to walk the streets at night. Lynch clearly looks back fondly on that period of time, yet there’s always a certain anxiousness and uncertainty that reeks throughout each scene. At any point, this wholesome community could be visited by an outside force that seeks to destroy. Hell, it may even come from within.

“Sandy represents Jeffrey’s purity in spirit; bright, peppy, abstinent, optimistic about what the future holds, waiting for the robins to come.”

Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) remains the constant variable between both the light and dark worlds, as he partakes in both of their attributes. He fills Sandy (Laura Dern) in on his exploits to figure out the mystery behind the severed ear and how it relates to Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini), yet never fully brings her in out of fear of these two worlds colliding. Sandy represents Jeffrey’s purity in spirit; bright, peppy, abstinent, optimistic about what the future holds, waiting for the robins to come. She’s even angelic in form, her first appearance wrapped in a blinding light coming out from the dark forest behind her. Dorothy, on the other hand, represents Jeffrey’s repressed desires, like his sexual awakening. Like with the ear, he’s repulsed, yet can’t take his eyes off of it. As Jeffrey curiously crawls further down the rabbit hole, Dorothy is the first arm to reach out to him on the other side. These two women embody the classic devil/angel on shoulder archetype, yet Dorothy isn’t entirely the devil in this situation. Like Jeffrey, she just happened to be caught in a trap of depravity and can’t get out without dire consequences for herself and her family.

On that note, it’s my belief that Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) is an incarnation of the Antichrist himself. Unlike the other three -- above-mentioned characters, there’s no potential for him to bounce between the light and dark worlds. Booth can only thrive hidden in the dark, similar to the beetles we see lurking under the grass in the opening sequence. His violent urges, including murder, drug dealing and ritualistic rape, bar him from entering the light for good. He prevents Dorothy from entering the light by keeping her as a sex slave in order to let her husband and child live. It could also be argued that Jeffrey is the inverse of Frank, someone who became far too curious and completely delved into the darkness. Outside the sawmill yard, Frank puts on lipstick and violently kisses Jeffrey, possibly alluding to kissing your own reflection in the mirror, before brutally beating him unconscious. Perhaps that’s why Dorothy takes Jeffrey as a lover; a young, more naive Frank that’s not aware of the power he wields. When she begs him to hit her in bed, it’s almost an anti-cathartic effect once the blow is struck. Jeffrey has embraced the underworld, unsure whether he’ll be able to fully return to the light. For Dorothy, it’s all a case of Stockholm Syndrome; she’s turned on by the same force that destroys her from within.
The light and dark worlds cannot cross, so when Dorothy shows up at Sandy’s house in the nude and proclaims to Jeffrey that “You put your disease in me,” it’s the beginning of the end. Like Eve eating the forbidden fruit, Jeffrey tastes what he cannot have and unknowingly throws off the balance between good and evil. Sandy, fully overwrought, realizes that he has turned his back on the light and slaps him for cheating on her. It’d make sense if Lynch ended this plot thread here on a more nihilistic note, but that’s not what he does here.

Blue Velvet (1986)

“Good appears to have triumphed over evil. Yet, there’s still a mild sense of dread in the air.”

After Frank is killed, Lynch chooses to end the film on a bizarrely happy note after all the violent rage that’s unfolded throughout the story, in the vein of how Beethoven’s Egmont
Overture suddenly ends. Jeffrey and Sandy choose to forgive each other and reconvene, embracing each other under the same blinding light she was first introduced with. The robins come home to roost and consume the beetles lurking in the ground. Dorothy is reunited with her boy. Good appears to have triumphed over evil. Yet, there’s still a mild sense of dread in the air.

While these characters are safe and will certainly go on to live under better circumstances, the remnants of the past will never be forgotten. This is no better exemplified than in Lynch panning from the embrace of mother and son to a clear blue sky, as we hear a brief reprise of Dorothy crooning the title song, specifically the last line;

“...And I still can see blue velvet/Through my tears...”

Wild at Heart (1990):

Wild at Heart (1990)

“This is a snakeskin jacket! And for me it's a symbol of my individuality, and my belief... in personal freedom.”

While most consider Blue Velvet to be Lynch’s “magnum opus”, I personally find his best work to be Wild at Heart. Blue Velvet has plenty of surreal elements engrained in its narrative, but mostly sticks within the structure of a noir film. Wild At Heart completely throws any conventions out of the window and runs wherever the wind takes it. It’s more than just a road film. It’s a crime thriller/comedy/romance/horror/musical/grindhouse
exploitation/erotic fantasy film. Everything you could ever want and more. As passionate lovers, Sailor (Nicholas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern), make their escape and drive cross-country, the audience is practically led through a funhouse, never knowing who or what’ll pop out from around the corner. Name another film that begins with the main character brutally beating a man to death against a stair rail and ends with them hopping on top of a car mid-traffic to sing Love Me Tender to his girlfriend, after being encouraged by Glinda the Good Witch. I assume your other options are severely limited.

“Lynch’s trademark juxtaposition between linear narratives and abstract ideas fills the entire canvas through its wide variety of characters.”

In his poem, To Elsie, William Carlos Williams opens with the preface that “The pure products of America go crazy.” No better phrase could sum up the characters and environment that surrounds our two protagonists. Barry Gifford, in his novel, and Lynch, in his script, both see Sailor and Lula as pure spirits who constantly have to evade the cruel and evil world that hunts them down, no matter how far they drive or how much they attempt to avoid it. The idea is that they’re two of a stock who never left the Garden of Eden, only to be greeted by a hostile world that seeks to corrupt them. A perfect example is the scene where Lula goes berserk after hearing nothing but news of violence and death on the radio, pulling the car over to regain some sanity, only to be lured back into Sailor’s arms after dancing it out to speed metal in a field as the sun sets behind them. None of these combined elements should add up at all, but Lynch makes it happen and we buy every second of it.

Wild at Heart (1990)
Lynch’s trademark juxtaposition between linear narratives and abstract ideas fills the entire canvas through its wide variety of characters. Sailor Ripley (Nicolas Cage) is an Elvis-infused, suave romantic outlaw who likes to gloat about his snakeskin jacket and what it represents. Lula Pace Fortune (Laura Dern) is akin to Marilyn Monroe: a tender, carefree, seductive woman who yearns to roam free with Sailor. Both are crazed sex addicts, which works out pretty well, yet, however quirky our protagonists come across as, they’re practically common grain compared to the insanity of the film’s antagonists. We have Marietta (Diane Ladd), Lula’s psychotic mother who intends on keeping the couple apart at any cost, seeking to have Sailor killed after he rejects her sexual advances. She appears in multiple forms; as a try-hard loving spouse to Johnnie Farragut (Henry Dean Stanton), as a psychosis-ridden incurable with a face entirely coated in red lipstick, and as the Wicked Witch of the West flying above the desert roads of California. There’s Marcellus Santos (J.E. Freeman), a professional hitman who Marietta pays to kill Sailor, who in turn decides to kill Johnnie Farragut, as a bonus, sending her into psychosis. Lastly, we have Bobby Peru (Willem Dafoe), a sadistic gangster with his signature rotted teeth that attempts to rape Lula and coerces Sailor into helping him rob a feed store, intending to kill him after being hired by Santos. Each character has some mark to remember them by, some cut that tells you who they are and where they’re going. Some characters are deeply in love, some characters are neutral passersby, and some are out for blood. Each has one thing in common, they’re all caught up in a barren wasteland with no way to get out.

“In this case, love and violence are intertwined within the narrative as forms of expression”

Upon release, Lynch described Wild at Heart as “a really modern romance in a violent world—a picture about finding love in Hell.” In this case, love and violence are intertwined within the narrative as forms of expression. Sailor and Lula express themselves through the acts of dance (particularly karate moshing), song and passionate sex, only resorting to violence when absolutely necessary. When Marietta is rejected by Sailor as a sexual partner, she resorts to violence and brings Santos along as a co-conspirator. Bobby Peru makes unwanted sexual advances on Lula, then states that he’s got no time for such an activity, leaving him to abide by bloodshed. The choice in soundtrack also illustrates this point as well, with the frequent usage of two tracks in particular; an excerpt from Strauss’s romantic sounding classical piece “Im Abendrot”’ and Powermad's violently charged “Slaughterhouse,” a high-octane heavy metal track. Both these pieces complement each other in showcasing the duality between not just Sailor and Lula, but passion and anger at large.

Lost Highway (1997):

Lost Highway (1997)

“Funny how secrets travel...”

    I feel as though I know David Lynch very well, though we’ve never met, he’s basically the uncle I never had. He smokes cigarettes, drinks black coffee, and wears the same suit every time you see him. David Lynch is an honorary Afghan uncle, and I feel like the next time I see him; I’m going to ask him about the weather in Los Angeles, and hopefully he’ll send me a cool video of him in sunglasses telling me about a song he’s been thinking about, and knowing that there’ll be beautiful blue skies and golden sunshine all along the way! It’s such a fantasy.

Like many of Lynch’s films, people are always divided on its initial release, either they loved it or hated it. Famously, in 1992, many fans felt as if they were let down by Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. Lynch then decides to come back with a sexy, electric, fascinating, and hilarious film about seeing double, male anger, and videotapes, all set in 1997 Los Angeles. Lynch loves LA, as this film is the first in his unofficial “LA trilogy” (Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive & Inland Empire). He’s quoted saying, “Number one, the intense light. Also, the different feelings in the air. But like every place, it’s always changing. And it takes a lot longer to appreciate LA than a lot of cities because it’s so spread out, and every area has its own mood”. He even makes weather videos (mentioned earlier) about what we could expect weather wise in LA. David Lynch’s Lost Highway is finally receiving the love it deserves, as the criterion release is set to come out this month. The ultimate treatment for a film after its release.

“It lets me live out my dreams, my fantasy, my ambitions as a young man who’s got a girlfriend and a job with Jack Nance and the one and only Richard Pryor at a mechanic shop.“

So here we are, we’re on an infinite road: it’s shaky, distorted, and David Bowie’s I’m Deranged suddenly plays and names are flying at your face, yellow stencil cut names are so wonderful until they fade away, and then we meet Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette. Bill Pullman’s character, Fred, is probably the coolest guy I’ve ever seen, a saxophonist living in a concrete prison home on the Hollywood hills. Patricia Arquette is arguably even cooler, they’re unstoppable. Things then take an extremely dark turn...

Lost Highway (1997)

Dick Laurent is DEAD.

A terrifying little man with jet black hair, red lipstick, and a pale face (Robert Blake) comes up to Fred at a cool 90’s LA party in the hills, filled with topless women in the pool and men with bolo ties. This little gargoyle tells Fred that they’ve met before and hands him his phone to tell him that he’s in his house right now. It’s electrifying, it’s strange but strangely enough I feel comfort.

Unfortunately, things go south, it gets bad, but we start dreaming, fantasizing, and we’re transformed into a completely different person. Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), a cool young man with long sideburns and a goatee. It lets me live out my dreams, my fantasy, my ambitions as a young man who’s got a girlfriend and a job with Phil (Jack Nance), and the one and only, Richard Pryor, playing character Arnie, at a mechanic shop. We got the best clients, especially Mr. Eddy, played by Robert Loggia, the hilarious enigmatic man that seems like a mob boss, but trusts Getty’s character to turn twists & knobs on his Mercedes to make it faster. It’s time to make it smooth “like shit off a duck’s ass!” said brilliantly by the beautiful Robert Loggia.

“His humor is wacky, zany, and sometimes slapstick-like”

Lynch’s sense of humor always creeps into his films in the best way possible. His humor is wacky, zany, and sometimes slapstick-like. There’s a scene in the film where Getty is having sex and two cops watching him outside the hotel room look at each other, one says “Fucker gets more ass than a toilet seat!”. Hilarious. It’s incredibly bizarre, yet it adds to why I love this film so much. People always claim that Lynch is somebody that wants to confuse you, but I’d argue that’s never the case. Lynch’s films to me are a sentimental piece of life that’s a little too real. Essentially, nothing ever really makes sense in the context of real life, and David Lynch does such a great job encompassing that in his work. Things should never make sense, and that’s fine.

Most of Lost Highway is terrifyingly surreal. It’s confusing, sure, but it’s very familiar. Another idea that infamously inspired the film is the “OJ Simpson Murder Case of 1995”. The real-life case is eerily similar to what happens in the film, but of course the film and that case have their striking differences. Lost Highway is a fantasy, and it could be Lynch’s most personal film because he’s huge on transcendental meditation, essentially daydreaming, but it’s used to help in the best way possible. So much of what Fred does in this film is basically just daydreaming. We are always wanting to dream, become better fictional versions of ourselves, and Lost Highway conveys that idea the best. David Bowie’s song title in the amazing intro and outro song of this film, I’m Deranged, is a rather clever way to describe this film. I love Lost Highway so much. I regard it as my favorite of Lynch films.

All films directed by David Lynch


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