Today, we celebrate the 70th birthday of American auteur David Lynch, whose four-decade career has given us some of the best examples of contemporary film and television. He is equally beloved of freshman-year film students and experienced cinephiles for his enigmatic work, though that very same quality is the source of derision from his detractors. He’s long been tagged as a surrealist, making avant-garde films with impossible-to-follow narratives. The word “Lynchian” almost always refers to something weird, something with dreamlike logic or a confusing plot. This isn’t just an unfairly narrow view of Lynch’s work, it’s not an entirely accurate one. Pretty much everyone has a strong opinion about David Lynch, but is he our most misunderstood filmmaker?
In fairness, it’s not as though this definition is completely unearned. His best-known films are his first (and strangest) feature, Eraserhead, and Mulholland Drive, which netted him an Oscar nomination for Best Director. Eraserhead is certainly a surreal work, what with its deformed alien infants and tiny women inside radiators. And Mulholland Drive is infamous for its twisty, oblique narrative. Not to mention his TV show Twin Peaks, which gave birth to an entire genre of television with its long-term supernatural mysteries. These are what people think of when they hear David Lynch: fantastical, mysterious, confusing. That’s “Lynchian.”
Putting aside how dismissive this is of those works, it’s dismissive on a wider scale of the rest of Lynch’s career. It’s a formula that doesn’t line up with a lot of what he’s made. Blue Velvet isn’t fantastical; The Elephant Man isn’t mysterious; and The Straight Story isn’t confusing. How “Lynchian” is Wild at Heart? His filmography has been shunted under an umbrella which doesn’t accurately define a good chunk of it. The popular idea of what it means to be “Lynchian” is a fabrication.
So, what would a more genuine definition of that word look like? More than anything else, Lynch’s work shares in the exploration of hidden depravity lurking beneath normal Americana. The opening scene of Blue Velvet is the best example; his camera revels in the slo-mo, Norman Rockwell cheerfulness of the 1950s, before sinking just below the surface to reveal the filthy, horrifying insects underneath. The entirety of Twin Peaks is about the terrifying darkness which binds together a seemingly ordinary small town. Beyond that, there’s The Elephant Man, in which John Merrick must hide away in an attic so as not to upset the sensibilities of so-called polite society. In that film, Lynch argues that the dehumanizing societal rules of ordinary people are far more monstrous than someone who appears to be such. Lynch returns to this theme in Mulholland Drive, where he deconstructs the glossy myth of Hollywood and reveals it as a destructive sham. Things may not be what they seem in a Lynch film, but that is nonetheless the way that they are. Lynch has always been after the truth of the human experience, so why does he have a reputation for obfuscating it?
I think it’s difficult for some viewers to see Lynch’s work as a stab at truth, because presentation truth in other movies tends to be an uncovered object and not a covered one. Truth is the result of a journey, something untainted to be achieved by defeating all that is untrue. But Lynch’s truth is necessarily tainted; he sees reality as obscured by humanity to serve their own purposes, making his filmography an almost Marxist cinema. The next time you describe something as Lynchian, think about whether or not it fits this new definition. If it doesn’t, you’re doing a disservice to one of the most vital artists working today.
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