Monday, December 13, 2004

The Three Phases of David Lynch: Phase I

I'd consider David Lynch my favorite movie director. Even though Tim Burton and even Quentin Tarantino have done more movies that I really love, no one makes films that are more interesting to analyze than Lynch, and he also made the brilliant TV series Twin Peaks. What makes Lynch such an interesting director is the way that all his movies fall into a united symbolic universe. Most directors, you watch one of their movies, and it stands alone, but to really understand what Lynch is trying to say with his films, you have to see each of them, and find the connections between them. In this way, he conforms to the original premise of auteur theory, which is that a director's body of films is one cohesive unit, which develops similar themes in each of his works.

I'd divide Lynch's output into three eras. First is the Eraserhead era, second is the Blue Velvet era, and third is the Fire Walk With Me era. While each era includes a number of films, those three are most indicative of what he was doing at that time. There is crossover between the eras, but I feel like each is the mark of a significant change in his output.

The Eraserhead era consists of his early shorts (which I have not seen), Eraserhead, The Elephant Man and Dune. This is his least interesting filmmaking era, or at least the era in which he made his weakest films, and it seems more removed from his later work than anything he's made after Blue Velvet. In this era, Lynch was focused much more on surrealism, and creating crazy images than on trying to tell a strict narrative.

One of the unifying tenets of any David Lynch movie is that the film's arc is emotionally based rather than based on a narrative. The end of Mulholland Drive is structured the way it is because it creates a coherent emotional arc, even if the narrative is muddled, and of all his films, the one with the least narrative is his first, Eraserhead.

To even describe the story of Eraserhead is tough. It's a film that is almost purely about symbols, and it exists in an odd realm that's not quite dream and not quite real. This could be said of a lot of Lynch stuff, but never more so than here. I consider the setting of Eraserhead probably the most bizarre setting of any movie. It feels like a completely alien world, and no one behaves like real people would. The really odd interactions of this film, notably the dinner scene, return in some of Twin Peaks, and Mulholland Drive also, but never to the extreme they are taken here. It's really discomforting to watch these people who can barely string together a sentence holding conversations.

The most critical thing to later Lynch movies is the Radiator sequences. A woman stands on a stage in front of curtains, looking on a black and white patterned floor, singing is an image that Lynch brings back in various forms in nearly all of his movies, most notably the red room and Club Silencio.

Eraserhead has a lot in common structurally with later Lynch works. It begins in a world that is very bizarre, but has rules, and feels like it could almost be real, it's just a little off. However, at the end, the movie becomes more and more mentally subjective. The entire final sequence seems to take place entirely in Henry's head, and much like the ending of Mulholland Drive or Lost Highway, features bizarre imagery and a general feeling of confusion for the viewer. Lynch packs the screen with bizarre happenings and you have to keep up.

Perhaps the greatest similarity between this and other Lynch works is the ending. Almost all Lynch movies end in a way that is very similar to what happens in Eraserhead. In Eraserhead, Henry meets the Lady in the Radiator and is taken to heaven, presumably having killed himself. He finds peace in a white environment, and all the trauma of his life is over. This pattern is replicated a number of times, in The Elephant Man, but more importantly in what three of his most recent films, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. But, more on those connections later, suffice it to say, that for Lynch, the only way for a character to find peace seems to be in a form of suicide.

Anyway, Eraserhead sets the template for future Lynch works, but actually has very little in common with his more polished later films. However, his next two movies pick up quite a bit from Eraserhead. The Elephant Man is one Lynch's least Lynchy films. It's played fairly straight, with a rousing emotional narrative, and very little directorial excess.

The most Lynch element of the film is the opening sequence. It is a trippy montage of John Merrick's mother being trampled to death by elephants. After that, there's some traditional Lynch elements, such as the bizarre characters at the carnival, but it's pretty standard story. Where the film most resembles Eraserhead is in its look. Shooting in black and white, Lynch's Victorian England has much in common with the industrial dystopia of Eraserhead.

I'm not a huge fan of the film, because I feel it's a bit too emotionally manipulative. It's got great performances, but is one of Lynch's films that I would place outside of the unified Lynch-verse. It's well made, and was probably necessary for Lynch to do this in order to make the jump from indy director to known quantity, but when compared to his other films, this can't quite measure up.

David Lynch's Dune is a film that's widely seen as a failure, and it's easy to see it that way, because the story basically falls apart in the second half, there's very little character development, and the ending is rather abrupt, but if you look at the film from a slightly different angle, you can find Lynch in space, his most surreal film that isn't Eraserhead. I love the opening sequence, with Princess Irulan against the stars, giving a voiceover on the universe of this film. The image is quite similar to the opening of Eraserhead, with Henry floating along a backdrop of stars.

The whale creature that powers the ship seems to be taken directly from Eraserhead's radiator sequences, only much larger here. The grotesque flowing blood and general nastiness of the baron's ship recalls sequences from Eraserhead. My favorite parts of the film are Paul's dream sequences, filled with strange imagery, like a hand floating in space. These sequences don't do much to forward the plot, but they form the core of the film, bizarre images, in a film that is consistently filled with bizarreness.

My favorite thing about Dune is something that doesn't turn up in any of Lynch's other films, namely the individual voiceovers used to convey each character's thoughts. They are a great device for simplifying narrative exposition, and also allow you to get to know the individual characters better. What narrative coherence the film does have, it owes to these.

Like almost all Lynch films, the narrative sort of breaks down towards the end of this movie, but here it's not motivated by a character's deteriorating mental state, it seems like Lynch was taking his time at the beginning of the movie, then realized he was getting close to the end and had to sprint the rest of the way. Paul's relationship with Channi is barely touched on, and the ending battle is rather perfunctory. Time just seems to pass, and events occur without motivation or reason. It's easy to find fault with this, but in doin so, you can miss the merits that these sequences do have, and the way Lynch condenses huge amounts of story into a very short amount of time.

This film also features the debut of a lot of people who would become Lynch regulars. Kyle McLachlan appears in his first Lynch movie, setting the stage for the far more fruitful collaboration the two have in Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks. Everett McGill appears here, setting up his role in Twin Peaks, same for Jurgen Prochnow, and Jack Nance returns, as he does in every Lynch film until his death.

So, what are the unifying characteristics of Lynch Phase I? A general surrealism, odd images, nasty liquid, worms, Victorian style architecture, and an uneven quality of film. These three films are all lesser Lynch, and merely serve as a springboard for the greatness to come in Lynch Phase II.

But, before that, it's interesting to speculate about what could have happened if Dune had become a massive success. Lynch was already writing the sequel, so that would certanly have been his next project. There's two ways things could have gone. One, Lynch completely embraces the Hollywood mainstream, continuing on the path that started with The Elephant Man, and Eraserhead remains a relic of a more independent past. I think Lynch would have still made strong films, with surreal elements, but he would certainly have never engaged in the narrative experimentation of Lynch Phase III.

On the other hand, perhaps Lynch would have become more of a Steven Soderbergh, alternating between big budget studio films, like Dune, and more personal projects. He could still have made Blue Velvet, and might have had an even easier time of it, due to the capital he would gain from the success of Dune. I feel like Lynch is not someone who would ever abandon his artistic integrity, and clearly, even in mainstream projects like Dune, he brings a lot of his sensibility. I could imagiine him being something of a Grant Morrison, dropping a great mainstream book like JLA, then going to make a brilliant original story like The Invisibles.

So, that's it for David Lynch Phase I. More tomorrow on 50s-retro David, the era in which Lynch went from good filmmaker with potential, to great filmmaker.

Related Posts
Dune (3/1/2004)
The Three Phases of David Lynch: Phase II: Part I: Blue Velvet (12/16/2004)
Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (7/26/2005)

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