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Friday, 17 June 2011

David Lynch, 1946 - Present

This may sound cliche, but it's true. David Lynch is a director you either love or hate. You can either see him as a wild genius and one of the most creative figures in Cinema or as a pretentious charlatan who makes meaningless films.

I personally think he's a great film maker, who has fully grasped exactly what film making means. Of course he applies this skill in a way that will not appeal to everyone, as he clearly makes films as some kind of art form rather than telling a usual narrative tale. However this does not mean that I worship his every film. In fact I find much of his work to be quite bad, sometimes downright terrible.
He's the kind of director that has created his own genre, his films are in a class of their own and I often find them hard to review mainly due to the lack of any other works to compare them to.
But as he is in this month Director's Chair over at the LAMB, I though it would be a good opportunity to catch up on the few films of his I hadn't seen and write a post reviewign them all. However I did leave out Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, mainly because I haven't seen the TV series not do I want to, so that film remains the only feature length film of David Lynch I haven't seen.

Now I shall share my thoughts on each of his other 9 feature length films:

Eraserhead - 1977
Despite this film being Lynch's directional debut, it was the last one I saw. I had heard much about it's cult status and the high praise heaped upon it so I was looking forward to watching it.
But the final result was simply astounding, I'm not sure how I would interpret it just yet, I'll need time to think it over. But everything about it impressed me greatly, from the performances, to the directing which was very inventive for a first film and Lynch managed to create some striking visuals, to the sound effects which played a very large part in making this film so weird, and of course the puppetry that was genuinely revolting.
I had not expected to be so impressed by this film, it really is a work of genius, so many little things that Lynch excelled at that make this film the kind of work that you never forget.
I doubt I would ever have watched it if not for the purpose of putting together this post, as these kind of avant garde films aren't exactly my cup of tea, but this one was so weird that it just worked. There isn't much more to say really, to describe it would be pointless as it sound stupid on paper, but I would highly recommend watching it.

 The Elephant Man - 1980
The Elephant Man is one of Lynch's finest films, and it is also one of his least weird. He tells a tale of almost Gothic horror through a fantastic atmosphere, fine performances by Anthony Hopkins and John Hurt, and a great amount of sensitivity.
It was acclaimed upon release and was even nominated for some Oscars, but I think it's slightly faded away over the years and now it has become rather forgotten. It does not hold the high place in peoples estime that it seemed to a while ago as many people have been overlooking it and even criticising it
But I stand by my claim that it is one of Lynch's finest films, it shows an amount of sensitivity and a view upon human nature that isn't always present in his later films. But if you prefer his weirder works, then you may be disappointed with this one. However, it is quite tough viewing, many scenes are hard to watch as Lynch creates a character the viewer can feel real compassion for in this film, with the help of John Hurt's brilliant performance. I'd recommend this very highly as I remember only goo things of it, but then again it has been a long time since I saw it and my memories of it are sightly vague.

Dune - 1984
Dune is one of Lynch's most maligned films. In fact it is often considered the lowest point of his career as it was a complete failure in both financial terms and critical.
Despite this, and the various controversies surrounding the film and the extended cuts made without the directors permission, I actually thought the film was not bad at all.
It hasn't aged well, it's effects are pretty cheesy even for it's time and the plot is repetitive and many subplots seem to get forgotten along the way. But it is an entertaining enough watch that is far from being offensively bad, but there is an air of missed opportunity that surrounds it all. I couldn't help but feel that it could have been far better than it actually is as it's a great idea, certainly better than the more successful Star Wars, but ultimately it's lack of originality and creativity make it nothing more than a slightly tedious but ultimately rather enjoyable pass time.
I would hesitate to recommend it as it is a film that received few positive reviews, but I thought it was far from terrible and worth watching at least once. However, I'd highly recommend sticking with the theatrical cut, which although it displeased Lynch was the only one he ever approved, avoid all later cuts.

Blue Velvet - 1987
Now we come to what may be Lynch's finest film.
This film completely fascinated me when I first saw it and gradually became one of my absolute favourites.
As with most of Lynch's films, this one is all about the atmosphere. It's seemingly gentle and dreamlike, only to be interrupted by sudden furious outbursts, mostly on the part of Dennis Hopper's character, who I might add is one of the most memorable characters (and most vulgar) I've ever seen on film, it's a terrifying performance by Hopper, who looks truly disturbed at times.
The directing is quiet amazing, as Lynch perfectly captures a strangely surreal small American town. And although the film may seem to be little more than a sequence of fantastic scenes strung together loosely, it does have some most interestign themes throughout such as the whole voyeuristic element, conducted by the character who is  suppose to be the "good guy". But then again, next to Hopper's raging Frank, he is a saint.
I could write much more about how wonderful this film is, but I would not like to spoil it fr those who haven't seen it, and I'm sure there are some readers who haven't. But if you're a film buff, you must remedy that as soon as possible. It's a brilliant film, not something anyone will like, but a must see for film buffs.

Wild At Heart - 1990
Wild At Heart can be ranked among the more controversial films in this post mainly because of it's highly unexpected win at the Cannes film festival, where it walked away with nothing less than the Palm D'Or.
I watched this mainly to see Nic Cage, of whom I'm a massive fan. I was not disappointed as he was his usual brilliant self. Lynch and Cage were a great pairing, as Cage's erratic improvisational acting style clearly suited Lynch's equally bizarre film making.
The film itself is a very strange one, but thankfully it is driven by a narrative that admittedly does wander off course at times but is still more substantial than some of his later works.
It's a kind of twisted and depraved take of The Wizard fo Oz, and is one of Lynch's more energetic films, even if it does meander a lot towards the end which ultimately brings the whole film down a bit.
It's still a wonderfully creative film with some very memorable scenes, a fine performance from Cage and a very dark sense of humour.

 Lost Highway - 1997
This is where Lynch starts to lose me. I don't want to sound narrow minded or anything, but I honestly think that his loose "Hollywood Trilogy" which includes Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire is not one of his finest works at all.

I watched this one rather recently, but despite it's intriguing premise, original soundtrack and great performance from Patricia Arquette, I ended up rather unimpressed. However, I'm surprised to hear that this film was had more negative reviews than Inland Empire, Lost Highway might not be a great film but it is certainly better than that mess. For one thing it had some most interestign theme of identity and alternate reality which weren't explored enough in my opinion but were still better than anything in Inland Empire. What I did like about Lost Highway though is the fact that it struck me as a rather romantic film. Sure it's twisted, scary, disorientating and almost entirely incomprehensible, but the general idea seemed to me that the two characters were in love and their love kind of stretched across different realities or something like that. But the more I think about the film, the less I understand, so I'll stop here. This one has quite a few good things going for it, but ultimately disappoints.

The Straight Story - 1999
Just the year before this Lynch had begun his loose trilogy of Hollywood based films, all bizarre, almost incomprehensible works that test the audience's endurance and their senses. Only to make this film, a simple, moving tale of an old man struggling to reunite with his estranged brother by travelling across America on his garden tractor.
Such a surprisingly choice for Lynch, yet it paid off as The Straight Story happens to be one of his finest films.
The tone is instantly likeable and the performances really carry the film along, Lynch doesn't indulge in his usual weirdness and instead lets the story (which is based upon a true one I might add) tell itself.
It was clearly a bit of a feel-good film, but I didn't have a problem with that. It was told in such an unpretentious and simple way that I didn't feel like I was being manipulated into feeling good as is the case with other such films.
Although it is true that Lynch is a director you either love or hate, and thus it is hard to recommend his work to other people, I still would recommend The Straight Story to anyone. It is easily accessible, heart-warming and simply an excellent film. I only wish Lynch had continued making films like this instead of what comes next.

Mulholland Drive - 2001
Mulholland Drive is perhaps Lynch's most acclaimed film, many consider it his masterpiece. I have only seen it and have been told it improves upon subsequent viewings, yet I would say that Blue Velvet clearly surpasses it in quality.

I will admit that it is by far the best out of these three films. It's cinematography is typically beautiful, in fact it just might be the best work Lynch and his cinematographer have done. The performances are brilliant, partiuclarly Naomi Watts. And while certain scenes were very chilling or moving, on the whole the film left me rather indifferent. I did not feel like I had just watched a masterpiece of Cinema, I just felt I had taken another unsettling trip into Lynch's weird mind. And come out even more confused then when I went in.
So I recognise the brilliance of the film, it really is a great work. But I can't say I particularly like it. I would not place it in any favourites list or anything of the sort. So my attitude towards the film is a kind of polite respect but nothing more.
Maybe it deserves a second viewing...

Inland Empire - 2006
This is my least favourite of all Lynch's film by far. IN fact it is one of the few films I have seen that I really hated and struggled enormously to watch all the way through.
His usual sumptuous visual style is gone, replaced by a gritty handheld digital camera look which was quite frankly, ugly.
In fact, pretty much everything about this film was ugly. I realise that this is probably what Lynch had in mind but that does not decrease the fact that the visuals are horrible, the music is grating, the plot is a complete mess and is almost nonexistent, the characters, dialogue and pretty much everything in it is just off putting. In terms of repelling the audience, there are few films that can succeed as well as this one does despite the fact that it doesn't have particularly shocking imagery of any kind.
As I said before, this film was one of the most painful viewing experience of my life, and if that was what Lynch was aiming for, then I congratulate him but that doesn't change the fact that I hate this film.

I group Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire together, as a kind of loose trilogy, mainly because they share many similar themes and above all, take place in the same location, Hollywood.
I also found the atmospheres of each of them to be very similar, very dark atmospheres sometimes even seemingly taken straight out of a Horror film. 
But than again, Lynch has always had a propensity of Horror, most of his films feature some elements to a certain extent, with the exception of The Straight Story of course. Blue Velvet is less Horror and more Thriller but it does have a whole theme based around voyeurism which brings to mind such films as Peeping Tom.
Even The Elephant Man, one of his more straightforward works, has strong elements of Gothic Horror throughout, Lynch's use of light and shadows, the setting and  the general tone bringing to mind classic Vampire films and other such works.
This impression of watching a Horror film I get at times when watchign Lynch's work, especially his later work, is mainly due to the atmosphere he creates in his work. It has become such a phenomenon across Cinema that it has even been named "Lynchian". This is clearly his strong point as a director, which combined with his obvious talent for creating memorable visuals and his keen selection of music that creates some extremely interesting visual/audio combinations. Of these visual/audio combinations, the most striking for me would be the opening sequence of Blue Velvet. I get chills every time I watch it, it's a seemingly sweet song accompanying some typical shots of a small American town, with white picket fences and all the rest. And yet it is almost unbearably unsettling. I don't know why exactly, but it certainly sets the tone of the film perfectly.
It is also one of my all time favourite scenes, Lynch's camera movements, lighting, barely noticeable use of slow motion, all make it an absolutely perfect opening.

Lynch's favourite theme to deal with in his films is clearly the dream scape. And few directors can compare to his talent at portraying this dream scape that each of us has inside. (Nolan certainly isn't one of them, but Tarkovsky is a strong candidate.) This is conveyed though the atmosphere and the peculiar tone rather than elaborate and expensive visual effects, events and characters may seem normal at first but in these strange sequences, they seem to exist in a universe of their own, speaking a dialogue that while comprehensible is remains a mystery, with attitudes that seem like slightly warped verions of our own and with no sense of space and time.
All of his films contain at least one important dream sequence, except The Straight Story if I remember well. In some, mainly his weird trilogy, the dreams and the reality become so enmeshed that it's impossible to tell which is which. This is interesting of course but I find it gets a bit tiresome after a while. I personally prefer the approach he takes in Blue Velvet, which I won't reveal for those who haven't seen the film.Otherwise Wild At Heart is pretty straightforward, there is not much question of what is reality and what isn't, although at times dream sequences and visions arise as well as unexplained occurrences which will leave the viewer perplexed and puzzled. This I liked at well.

David Lynch is certainly one of the most creative director's I've come across, yet sometimes I wonder if that same creative force of his does him just as much harm as good. I think, and I'm sure I'm not alone, that he would have been better off having not made his three "weird" films. He just went to far into his own creative mind and eventually lost the audience on the way. Of course many claim to enjoy these films, but I see them as a considerabe step down from his more narrative driven work such as The Elephant Man and The Straight Story, and from his narrative driven madness such as Blue Velvet and Wild At Heart. I think such an overflow of creativity must be limited and put into form, it must be shaped into something. But lately Lynch seems to have given up on that and is making films that ultimately only he can understand.

However, I may not like his later uncontrollably insane films, but I do recognise that they have their place in Cinema and despite my personal indifference towards them, I am still glad they were made.
For they represent a kind of creativity and a boldness that is getting rare these days in Cinema. Of course at times he goes a bit too far in my opinion, but this is good as well. Challenging and avant garde material always has it's place in Cinema as often isn't meant to be liked or even respected, but to show something or to make a point. In Inland Empire for example, he shot the film with only the most basic of scripts, some would say no script at all and completely improvised most of it. And admirable feat to be sure, but not one that made a good film.

Anyway, in case you couldn't tell, I greatly admire Lynch's work, but I have my reservations as well.
I would not consider him on of the absolute best directors, but as I'm sure you can tell by the fact that I was willing to watch all these films, I like his work in general, even if it sometimes leaves me unimpressed.

I would have liked to write more, but this post is already late for the event it was intended for due to the fact that my blogging time and film watching time is getting more and more limited due to some personal changes happening right now.

In conclusion, if I had to rank them in order of my favourite to my least favourite, this is roughly how it would look:
  1. Blue Velvet
  2. The Elephant Man
  3. The Straight Story
  4. Eraserhead
  5. Wild At Heart
  6. Mulholland Drive
  7. Dune
  8. Lost Highway
  9. Inland Empire

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