David Lynch got me when I was 11. My dad brought home a LaserDisc of this movie called Eraserhead and asked if I wanted to watch it with him. “It’s a movie by David Lynch,” he said, as if his 11-year old son would know what a David Lynch film was. He then proceeded to show me a surrealist horror fever-dream about a man with poofy hair who has to take care of his unwanted monster-baby.
“Daddy, why does David Lynch make movies like that?” I asked him. “I don’t know. I think he’s disturbed.” I was too young to even know what “disturbed” meant, but at that moment I understood.
When I teach independent film at Ateneo I always make it a point to show Eraserhead first, usually introducing the film with a question: “Are you ready to get fucked up?” Without fail, when the final reflection papers come in three months later, they all still talk about Eraserhead. Varying from “I cant understand why anyone would make a film like that, it’s really horrible” to “I can’t believe I’ve never seen a film like that, it’s beautiful.” I always tell the students the same thing: you may end up loving David Lynch, you may end up hating him, but you will never forget him.
Lynch has been called many things—from genius and trailblazer to incomprehensible and indulgent. So what makes Lynch so special? Why, of all the auteurs and blockbuster filmmakers and indie darlings and cinematic rebels, is he my guy?
Because nobody makes movies like him. Full stop.
In fact, the more people have tried to be like Lynch, the more they’ve failed. Look at Oliver Stone and Wild Palms, or even something as recent as Darren Aronofsky’s mother! Doing a Lynch movie doesn’t mean you’re just being weird. There is a huge amount of improvisation and serendipity in his films, yes, but there is also a lot of thought and consideration. Lynch is one of the few filmmakers who I feel really understands the human subconscious. There are things he shows in his movies that feel so familiar, or that really get under your skin and keep you awake at night without being scary or shocking.
“Daddy, why does David Lynch make movies like that?” I asked him. “I don’t know. I think he’s disturbed.”
But don’t get me wrong—the guy is great at being scary and shocking. Consider the uncomfortably extended murder-by-stairbanner opening of Wild at Heart, or the masterfully crafted death of Laura Palmer from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (still one of the greatest murder scenes of all time). Try to remember David Lynch villains like Dennis Hopper’s rape-you-while-wearing-a-nitrate-oxide-gas-cannister Frank Booth from Blue Velvet, or scenes like Robert Blake telling Bill Pullman to call his house because he’s there right now in Lost Highway. The dark is strong in David Lynch’s work, and I think it’s because Lynch genuinely believes that evil exists.
And if evil exists, that means good does, too. In Lynch’s films bad things happen to good people, but the goodness pervades, even if it doesn’t prevail. Sailor and Lula’s love will always save the day. Dale Cooper will always try to save the girl, even if it destroys him. Laura Palmer will always choose to die over giving herself to evil.
The best way to experience a David Lynch film is to do just that: experience. Stop trying to make sense of things. Just let things wash over you, and allow yourself to feel the film. That said, appreciating his oeuvre is a tricky task. Start with the wrong film, say, Inland Empire, and you could be turned off with him completely. So this is the journey I suggest you take: Blue Velvet (1986), Wild at Heart (1990), Mulholland Dr. (2001), Lost Highway (1997), Eraserhead (1979).
It’s only if you’re still a fan after watching these five that you can finally take on Inland Empire, his most difficult film. In between those, as palate cleansers, you might consider what I call the non-Lynch Lynch works: Elephant Man, Dune, and The Straight Story. These are directed by David Lynch and have some of his signature style, but don’t feel like they belong in the same universe as the others. Dune, in particular, can be only appreciated through the guise of unconditional Lynch love.
Keen cineastes will notice that I’ve neglected to include one key David Lynch work in the list: Twin Peaks. What many consider to be his masterpiece, Twin Peaks is a journey of its own. It’s something I feel you can watch from start to finish and not only come away completely understanding David Lynch and his work, but also understanding the many mysteries of life and the universe. What’s interesting about Peaks is that it starts out as a standard TV soap opera and gets increasingly crazy as you go along—tackling Tibetan philosophy, dark spirits, hidden dimensions, the nature of identity, and the essence of evil. By the end of it all you feel like you’ve violently snapped out of a 50-hour trance.
Twenty-five years ago I saw my first episode of Twin Peaks, and the last scene featured a dancing dwarf in a red room with a dead girl whispering in the hero’s ear. I couldn’t sleep that night. It wasn’t that I was scared. In fact, it was more that I couldn’t place what I was feeling. What the hell was going on? What did it all mean? What was Laura Palmer whispering in Dale Cooper’s ear?
I’d basically spent the rest of my life chasing this feeling. Twin Peaks taught me how much I could love stories, how fiction could sometimes affect me more than real life, how transcendental the moving image could be.
After 25 years, the show finally returned. The new Twin Peaks was even more challenging than the original when it first came out. Much like the original, it was unlike anything you’d seen before on television, except it was at a time when most felt everything that could be done had already been done on TV.
When the show finally ended, I found myself annoyed. So many questions were left unanswered, so many threads left hanging, so much unresolved. That night I couldn’t sleep. I just kept thinking—what the hell was going on? What did it all mean? What was Laura Palmer whispering in Dale Cooper’s ear?
It felt like coming home.
This article was originally published in the November 2017 issue of Rogue.
Photo of David Lynch by William Campbell/Sygma via Getty Images