David Lynch: The Abstraction Machine

Few directors have blurred the line between experimentalism and studio process like David Lynch. In fact, I would argue the only recent contemporary would be Stanley Kubrick.

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What has Lynch done to minds like mine that make us think this way? What sort of spell has he cast? In 2017, it was that of the delivered promise. For the first time, Lynch returned to a project not for the first time, but the second. Twin Peaks: The Return was Lynch’s return to filmmaking, after the original series was cancelled and the the film spinoff, Fire Walk With Me, was released. At the end of the original series, in an episode titled “Beyond Life and Death”, Lynch promised us. Twenty five years.

In a career full of twists, left hooks, and unpredictable behavior, Lynch did something no one could have expected. Delivering on his intention to bring back Twin Peaks nearly three decades later wasn’t a light task. In his new memoir, Lynch expands upon the arduous shoot required to deliver the end result.

That result, an eighteen hour film that never played in theaters, involved Lynch telling us exactly what he was going to do. He would finish his series, then revive it exactly twenty five years later. A simple promise executed marvelously.  

In 1984, David Lynch released what is the most panned film of his career, Dune. Low box office, low reviews. His follow up, the miniscule and character focused Blue Velvet, set the precedent for all his post Dune work. Lynch would not be predicted, and he wasn’t for years. Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, INLAND EMPIRE, Fire Walk With Me, some of Lynch’s most demanding work. And after two decades of shocking, more shocking, and then shocking yet again, he went silent. 2006’s INLAND EMPIRE was thought to be his final picture. Until he reminded us of his promise.

If you’ve ever seen a David Lynch film, you will likely understand when I say he is an abstract creator. His art is wild, violent, and raw, like an untamed animal. It is a wonder to think that any studio agrees to work with David, or how more of his films have not been cut for PC values. Lynch exists in or at a place where he creates the art he sees, and major Hollywood studios pick them up. Unlike many art house directors, whose films go unseen for years, Lynch has gotten nearly everything he’s created released by major studios.

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The idea that Lynch can succeed in the old Hollywood way and still retain control is a marvel, and should be inspiring to any artist. It certainly inspires me. Yet, I wonder, how does he do it? Maintain control and benefit from the familiarity and resources of large film companies and studios?

The short answer, I believe, is awards. Lynch draws awards, or, more appropriately, he drew awards. In 1980, Lynch was nominated for eight Oscars, including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor (John Hurt). While he has received some recognition in recent decades, nothing has come close to his earliest critical triumph, The Elephant Man.

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Like many other great directors, Lynch achieved early success, sucking an audience in. He then proceeded to defy hopes for decades, film after film changing perception of his artistic footprint. Lynch has brought studios and meager audiences in for years based on the misguided hope that he would recreate the Oscar magic of The Elephant Man.

It’s no surprise that Mulholland Drive, his film that most closely resembles a classic Hollywood picture, if only for it’s satirical take, is also his most commonly loved. By now, most casual filmgoers have forgotten The Elephant Man, and young people as well as old have come to appreciate the hallucinatory chaos of Mulholland Drive, a film many consider to be Lynch’s masterwork. This is not a critique of Mulholland Drive, it’s amazing, but it is Lynch’s most accessible work outside of The Elephant Man, meaning even those stupified by its third act can say, “well, I liked Betty!”.

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This isn’t even mentioning what Mulholland Drive did for Naomi Watts’s career. Taking her from a hopeless auditionee to a household name, in what is surely her most difficult role. Mulholland Drive returned a breath of familiarity to Lynch’s audience, reminding them that when he wants to, he can deliver a semi-straightforward story that caters to many kinds of people.

To return in 2017 with his most ambitious project (seriously, have you seen the special effects in The Return?) after promising it twenty five years earlier, that is a true feat. Lynch has demonstrated that he can innovate even in predictability. And, after he had already revisited Twin Peaks with Fire Walk With Me, a huge left hook for many fans of the original series; he’s done it twice, and it is sure to happen again.