Thursday, August 30, 2018

Weird on Top: A Discussion of David Lynch

by Alejandra Gonzalez and Rob DiCristino
Rob: Welcome to Weird on Top, a new limited series in which Alejandra and I recap, review, analyze, and generally fan-out over the work of one of our favorite filmmakers, David Lynch. Our plan is to make this a bi-weekly column celebrating Lynch’s feature filmography, his short films, and Twin Peaks, as well as his art, music, and some of the documentaries and books produced by and about him. Come get weird with us. It’s going to be fun.

Week 1: Introductions, Origins, and Observations

Rob: Hey, Ale! So, why David Lynch? What was your first experience with his work, and what is it that continues to draw you to it?

Alejandra: Besides being majorly important to you and I as a filmmaker, I would argue that David Lynch introduced surrealist elements in film to the mainstream U.S., and that alone is worth exploring in our column. To have a stylistic term coined after you is pretty indicative of one's influence, and "Lynchian" was a word I was hearing constantly before I even knew who David Lynch was. I remember exactly how it happened: one of my closest friends in high school was always talking to me about something called Twin Peaks and would use the foreign term to describe anything even remotely surreal. At one point, I told her she was essentially talking to herself because I had no idea what any of it meant. She told me to look up "The Alphabet" on YouTube when I had the chance. So, I fell in love that night and have been ever since. Being a horror fan, I didn't expect to be terrified by a short, four-minute movie, but I lost sleep that night thinking about what I had just seen.

I think what I love so much about "The Alphabet" and most of Lynch's work is that a lot of the time I have trouble making sense of what I'm seeing, but it all affects me viscerally despite that. Being a writer, it's my job to be able to put what I'm feeling into words with ease, but doing that with my favorite movies by David Lynch seems to take more effort, if I am able to do it at all. I think if I had to pick one thing about his work that I love, it would be just that: it challenges me to sit with what I just saw and with the feelings it induced inside of me, sometimes for days. Sometimes, no matter how much time I spend with it, I can't find the reasons or logic behind the emotional reaction I have to his work. Though that would frustrate me otherwise, it's sort of refreshing with things by Lynch and perhaps this column will help me explore why that is. What about you? What was your first time like?
Rob: My first Lynch experience was his adaptation of Dune (1984), which my friends and I saw in middle school because we were huge fans of Frank Herbert’s book series. Obviously there’s not too much Lynch there (next to The Straight Story, it’s probably his least “Lynchian” effort, a bloated epic that he’s largely disowned), nor was I old enough at the time to appreciate any bits that might have been there, anyway. It wasn’t until I saw Mulholland Dr. in high school or college that I actually started to appreciate who Lynch was and what he was doing. Blue Velvet came next, and then Twin Peaks, which I’m not ashamed to admit didn’t click for me at all the first time I watched it. I’m a sucker for longform stories about haunted towns, though (the Silent Hill and Resident Evil games, the Welcome to Night Vale podcast), so I stuck with it for the worldbuilding until I finally fell in love with the characters and lore.

My affection for David Lynch has always struck me as odd because I’m such a story wonk. I like structure, logic, cohesion, character arcs, setups and payoffs. Lynch...does not. This isn’t to suggest that his work makes no sense or that (as many detractors allege) he’s being weird for weird’s sake. Everything he puts on screen has meaning; everything represents something, even if it’s just an abstract feeling or idea. I’m sure we’ll get into the fact that Lynch was originally trained as a painter (at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia, no less), and that his attitude toward the motion picture camera often matches his attitude toward a paint brush. Best of all, though, no one can tell us what it means, least of all Lynch. He’s famous for his refusal to comment on any of his work, which I think fuels allegations that he’s just throwing together weird ideas without any purpose. For sure, though, it all means something, and we’ll get into that.
That shapeless “surreal” non-logical logic is what also draws me to Lynch’s work, I think. People say, “Oh, you love Twin Peaks. You must love Lost!” And I can see why. It’s a weird, sprawling, open-ended mystery with scary creatures and magic. But what separates Lynch’s work from others like it is that — while it certainly invites interpretation and analysis — it’s never, ever about “solving” anything. There are no mystery boxes. I could obnoxiously postulate about how the first two hours of Mulholland Dr. are a dream featuring skewed images of characters and ideas that appear in the last half hour, but does that make the movie better? Will it ever actually matter that Eraserhead is all about Lynch’s fear of becoming a father? Or that Twin Peaks is about how we cope with and overcome cycles of abuse? Unlike other films and series (many of which cite Lynch as a direct influence), his work is never made better through understanding. As you said earlier, it’s always about a feeling is expressed in a particular moment.

So, since we’re planning on being pretty comprehensive in this column, is there anything in Lynch’s catalog you’ve yet to check out? I still haven’t seen Inland Empire, for example, and I’m excited to have an excuse to buy his new memoir, Room to Dream. Also, can you name a favorite “Lynchian” trope and a favorite member of Lynch’s regular company of actors/artists? I’m partial to Laura Dern and Jack Nance (“Wrapped in plaaassttic”), and a favorite trope would be his ever-evolving obsession with coffee and diners.
Alejandra: I think I’ve seen all of his feature length stuff, but I can’t say that I remember much from ones like The Straight Story or The Elephant Man since I’ve only seen those once and it was such a long time ago. I think my most revisited film of his is Blue Velvet, so I don’t think my opinions on it will change, but I look forward to seeing if the same applies to everything else we’re rewatching. The thing with Lynch is that it’s almost a new experience every time you watch his work again, no matter how many times you’ve seen a movie, so I’m excited! Maybe this time I’ll finally totally understand Lost Highway, although I really enjoy just letting that one take me wherever it wants.

As far as Lynchian tropes go, it’s honestly hard to pick some of my favorites because there are so many that I love. Do dopplegangers count? I also love how often he involves musical performances (Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks). Oh! His evident preference of blonde women in leading roles is another. I could go on, but I’m sure we’ll go even further into some of his recurring tropes as we revisit his work. I totally agree with you on the coffee trope, too. I also completely agree with you on Laura Dern being my favorite member of the actors he usually casts, but I would also put Kyle MacLachlan among those. I promise this isn’t a Blue Velvet bias or anything, I just always love him.
What are you looking forward to the most when it comes to experiencing Lynch’s oeuvre all over again? For me, it’s exciting to be re-experiencing them with another person, especially for this column, because it means we’ll get to offer perspective to each other we may have not considered in Lynch’s work before. I have conversations about his work all the time, as I’m sure many who are reading this have, but not really as elaborately as I anticipate this journey will be. I’m also really looking forward to simply watching these movies I’ve seen so many times before in a new way. I mentioned earlier that watching Lynch’s movies feels like I’m gaining a new understanding of them every single time, and now I’ve got an excuse to do that.

Rob: I think I’m in the same boat as you, where I’m most looking forward to digging into this weird world with the goal of writing about it collaboratively. I think you and I have similar enough tastes that we can get together on a lot of our favorite elements, but we have different enough points of view that we can each bring something unexpected to the discussion.

We’ll be back in a few weeks to talk 1986’s Blue Velvet because Ale threatened to cut off my ears and bury them in the garden if we didn’t start with her favorite Lynch film. Until then, remember: This world’s wild at heart…

Alejandra: And weird on top.


  1. Can't wait for this series. I have equal struggles and love for Lynch but I think listening to a conversation about each of his films is going to be great.

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