Filmmaker Retrospective: The Illustrative Cinema of David Lynch

From the organic mulch mosaics to the dissonant hum of faulty strobe lights, the films of David Lynch are a collective surreal tapestry of growth and decay, both in nature and in technology. This language is not without purpose, as Lynch’s origins lie in painting.

His first short film, Six Men Getting Sick, was an evocative animated painting produced during his years at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. The expense of making the film nearly led Lynch to swear off film forever, but a fellow classmate commissioned Lynch to make another. This convinced Lynch to purchase a Bolex and transition into filmmaking.

Drawing influence from the painter Francis Bacon, Lynch’s films are filled with obscurities, distorted physiology and exaggerated limbs. They find the grace within the texture of muck, filled with images of estranged body parts and rot. Ears are severed, the skin crawling with ants; cheeks are triple their size, with warts covering every inch.

When the films take on a sexual tone, this results in phallic and yonic imagery, whether it’s the gaping maw of a shattered egg or the piston like movements of sandworms. Lynch has a respect for the power of sexuality in that it can provide release, but also comes with strings attached. Many of his works touch upon the anxiety of male sexuality, and the obligation to both perform and provide.

A champion of the banal, Lynch revels in exploring characters idiosyncrasies, finding beauty where others might see plainness. He allows even the most insignificant character to fill his world with their bizarre self-confidence. Some view this as insincere, but Lynch’s embellishments are meant to poke fun at humanity’s myopia. They stem from a place of genuine inspiration. He is not weird for the sake of it. Instead, his films act as a mirror, revealing our weirdness to ourselves, even in places where we would rather not see it.

Lynch explores a psychological unconscious in his films that would make Carl Jung proud. Dreams and visions follow their own rules, rarely making logical sense, and yet something coherent is felt. Characters often reveal themselves by talking about their dreams or visions, and a unique ambience is established whereby anything is possible. These dreams give his characters insurmountable joy, crippling fear, and even clues to help solve crimes.

Lynch was able to cultivate prestige in the mainstream despite his films uncompromising surrealism and baffling narrative structure. Several of his films were up for Academy Awards, and 1990’s Wild at Heart earned Lynch the Palme d’Or at Cannes. His later films saw him mixing the macabre with aesthetics of sixties Americana, a nostalgic ode to the era he grew up in.

This list seeks to pay tribute to the subconscious madman, the popular surrealist who refused to compromise his voice – a voice so uniquely his that they had to coin the term Lynchian to refer to works where his influence has been felt.


1. Eraserhead (1977)


Although Lynch has stated that no one has had a completely correct interpretation of the film, Eraserhead is blatantly part autobiography. After only a year in Pennsylvania, Lynch reluctantly married his fellow student, Peggy Reavey, after an accidental pregnancy. He moved them into a cheap home in an area of Philadelphia with high crime and poverty rates.

During the writing of Eraserhead, Lynch’s daughter was born with a birth defect – clubbed feet. This mirrors itself in the films plot where the protagonist, Henry Spencer, finds out he is a father, and his baby turns out to be a strange deformed creature. It is a surrealist horror film about unexpected pregnancy, and the anxieties that come with the responsibilities. The films horrific visuals capitalize on Henry’s plight, as he is torn between obligation and temptation.

This manifests itself in a cyclic desire, where sex is the cause of both Henry’s imprisonment and the doorway to his freedom. Henry fantasizes of sleeping with his sultry neighbor, but haunting visions of a woman living inside his radiator also plague him. She has gross, swollen cheeks, and she dances on a stage as sperm like creatures rain down on her. She gleefully steps on them as each oozes puss and screams in pain.

Eraserhead film

In another dream sequence, Henry is decapitated and the alien face of his child replaces it. Henry’s lifeless head falls through a puddle of blood, landing in an industrial wasteland. A young boy picks it up and takes it to a shop, where it is used to make erasers (thus the name of the film). In this dream, Henry is a corporate drone, his husk of a head literally being put on an assembly line to produce a seemingly trivial product.

For each eraser that is made, Henry’s head loses a little more mass. This represents the anxiety of being a provider. Henry has a family to support now, and if we treat this as an autobiographical film for Lynch, a man who dedicated himself to living the art life, there is no greater fear than being constricted by a nine to five cubicle.

Made intermittently over the course of five years (1971-1976), Lynch worked odd end jobs including a paper delivery route in order to raise money for filming. Having a background in woodwork, Lynch built the sets, sheds, and furniture himself. He even created the strange deformed baby creature, although he refuses to reveal what it is made from.

The film works excellently as Lynch’s debut, introducing us to many motifs and character archetypes that would become staples in his work.


2. The Elephant Man (1980)


In an unexpected pairing, Mel Brooks enthusiastically let Lynch direct The Elephant Man after having seen Eraserhead. Based on the real life story of Joseph Merrick, a severely deformed man, the film intends to move its audience from revulsion and disgust to tender empathy.

Merrick, played by John Hurt, is abused by his “owner,” who uses him as part of a freak show in London. He takes Merrick to see a surgeon, who upon seeing the abuse inflicted upon Merrick, takes it upon himself, and the hospital, to care for him.

In spirit, the film is similar to the likes of the Hunchback of Notre Dame, and Beauty and the Beast. This exhibits a sentimentality seen in only a few of Lynch’s works, as we are concerned less with piecing Merrick’s journey through surreal imagery, and are more focused on our sympathy for Merrick’s plight.

The film fits in stylistically with Lynch’s canon. The surreal bookends and the grotesque makeup for Merrick’s character seem reminiscent of the Lady in the Radiator’s facial makeup from Eraserhead. Although Paramount executives wanted Lynch’s surrealist sequences involving Merrick’s mother cut, Brooks defended him, and helped to keep the film within Lynch’s vision.


One of the themes of the film is one that permeates most of Lynch’s work, the release that death provides from suffering. The ending achieves a warm catharsis, as Merrick admits that he has had a good day after having a theatre performance dedicated to him. He thanks the surgeon for all that he has done for him, before removing his pillows and lying down. Because of the size of his skull, lying down causes him to asphyxiate, and he is comforted by a vision of his mother before passing.

The film was nominated for several Academy Awards, however it did not win any. A letter of protest was sent to the Academy board requesting that the film be given an honorary award for its make up effects. The Academy refused, but in response, they gave make up artists their own award category with An American Werewolf in London being the first to win the award the following year.

The success of the film brought Lynch a lot of attention, and earned him the opportunity to try his hands at a mainstream blockbuster.


3. Dune (1984)

dune 1984

Much like Hollywood is always looking for the next young adult franchise (Hunger Games, Divergent), or superhero/comic book franchise (Guardians of the Galaxy), they were, at this time, riding the high of Star Wars fever. Dune had been in development since the early 70’s, and with Lynch at the helm, the film was finally getting off the ground.

To put this in perspective, Lynch had been offered the opportunity to direct Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, one of the most anticipated sequels of all time, and turned it down. Yet Lynch had accepted Dune even though he had not read the book or known the story. This action alone is a testament to Lynch’s intentions towards filmmaking.

Nevertheless, Dune became an exercise in settling for Lynch. His intended cut of the film ran almost three hours, but Universal demanded a standard two-hour cut of the film, which Lynch was forced to oblige since he did not have final cut.


The film was a commercial failure, bombing at the box office, and receiving unanimously negative reviews. Lynch blames himself for the films inadequacy, stating, “I started selling out on Dune. Looking back, it’s no one’s fault but my own.” Lynch has since distanced himself from the film, claiming that the studio pressure restricted his artistic control.

On some cuts of Dune, Lynch’s name is replaced in the credits with Alan Smithee, a pseudonym for artists who no longer wish to be associated with a film. Although Lynch may have compromised his integrity with edits, his influence can still be felt throughout the film. It is worth a viewing for the exquisite production alone.

A lesson in the victimization of compromise, Dune taught Lynch to never accept film work without having final cut. This would help him in his creative decisions for his next film, which went on to become one of his highest regarded.


4. Blue Velvet (1986)


Arguably the quintessential Lynch film, Blue Velvet left a radical imprint on the world. Starting with a severed ear in the woods, Blue Velvet takes us on a journey of discovery, one where we might not necessarily like what we find lying beneath the grass. We follow Jeffrey Beaumont as he returns home from school to visit his father, who’s just suffered a stroke.

Taking a short cut to visit his father at the hospital, Jeffrey finds the severed ear. The camera dives into the center of the ear, representing Jeffrey delving into the belly of the beast, and it only comes out of the canal after Jeffrey’s journey is over. This film saw Lynch taking a bite into neo-noir, a genre he would come back to for the rest of his career.

After Dune’s failure, Lynch passed around the script for Blue Velvet, but most major studios declined it due to its violent and sexual content. Lynch found an independent studio that agreed to fund the film, but when Lynch asked for final cut, they only agreed on the conditions that Lynch take a cut from his salary and work with a budget of only six million dollars. Lynch happily agreed.

The story is one of repression, both in the characters lives, and in the sugarcoated front of Americana. It’s about finding what has always been hidden, both physically, and in the psyche. An evil lurks beneath the surface, and it invades every facet of a small town. Some are willfully ignorant of it. It’s protected by blue skies, white picket fences, and smiling townsfolk.

But as Lynch once said, “I discovered that if one looks a little closer at this beautiful world, there are always red ants underneath.” For the first act of the film, we view the world through the starry eyes of Jeffrey, as he becomes excited and curious at the prospect of solving a mystery. The shocking violence that follows is meant to jolt us awake in the same way that it does Jeffrey.

blue velvet

The film has a pervasive Oedipal complex running throughout. Wide-eyed Jeffrey hides in the closet as he watches Frank torture Dorothy, a representation of the perspective of children in cases of domestic violence. Jeffrey is frightened by Frank’s violence, and yet it invokes curiosity in Jeffrey’s budding sexuality, as he desires to possess Dorothy himself. With Jeffrey’s interest in Sandy, and the brute, oppressive cage Frank has Dorothy trapped in, Dorothy becomes forbidden to Jeffrey, the way a mother would be.

Blue Velvet was a massive success, garnering controversy over its depictions of violence and sexuality. Over time, it has been regarded as an American classic and has subsequently earned praise on various “all time greatest films,” including honors from AFI. Lynch was nominated for the Academy Award for Best Director, but lost to Oliver Stone for Platoon.


5. Wild at Heart (1990)


Violence stokes the tinder of love in Lynch’s adaptation of Barry Gifford’s novel of the same name. Filmed during the midst of Twin Peaks, his hit television series, Wild At Heart tells the story of Sailor (Nicholas Cage) and Lula (Laura Dern), a couple on the run from Lula’s mother, who is using her mob connections to try and kill Sailor. The film is a jigsaw puzzle of tones, altogether shockingly violent, sensual, funny, and perverse, occasionally all at the same time.

Several ideas are touched upon in Wild at Heart without being capitalized on. This may frustrate many viewers, but in its defense, this subtlety with its themes and ideas make them more powerful. Sailor and Lula are one collective human, Sailor’s violent masculinity contrasted by Lula’s feminine sexuality.

Wild at Heart (1990)

They rip down the road in their car, wanting nothing more than the wind in their hair and the freedom to do what they want. Sailor’s desire to prove himself as a man, and be a provider for Lula leads him down a dark path, nearly becoming controlled by the darkness he stands against.

Aside from Cage and Dern’s stellar performances, Willem Dafoe deserves a spotlight for his portrayal of Bobby Peru. Even though the character doesn’t appear until the latter half of the film, Dafoe gives a performance on par with that of Hopper’s Frank Booth, and in many ways, feels like an extension of that same character. While the film received mixed reviews, it went on to win the Palme d’Or at Cannes.