David Lynch

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Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2065

David Lynch 1946-

(Full name David Keith Lynch) American director and screenwriter.

The following entry presents criticism on Lynch's career through 2002. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volume 66.

Regarded as one of the most creative and unusual filmmakers of his generation, Lynch has earned a reputation for confronting audiences with his distinctive personal vision, showing physical and psychological deformity with unsettling frankness. His works often focus upon innocent, alienated, or obsessive individuals who reflect either his own personality or those of characters drawn from American popular culture and cinema. By emphasizing protagonists entangled in sinister situations beyond their control, Lynch explores the unpleasant and grotesque realities hidden beneath the placid surface of everyday existence. He adopts an intuitive, surrealist approach to present viewers with images suggestive of sex, birth, and death—including womblike settings, phallic symbols, and mutilated bodies—while avoiding overt explanation. His best known works include Eraserhead (1977), Blue Velvet (1986), and the critically acclaimed television series Twin Peaks (1990-91).

Biographical Information

Lynch was born January 20, 1946, in Missoula, Montana. His father was a scientist who worked in the United States Department of Agriculture, conducting forestry research. When he was fifteen, Lynch moved with his family to Alexandria, Virginia, where he attended the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C., and the Boston Museum School. From 1965 to 1969, he attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. While studying in Philadelphia, Lynch made his first film, Six Men Getting Sick (1966), a repeating loop in which the heads of six different figures vomit and then burst into flames. Lynch was later awarded a $5,000 grant from the American Film Institute that enabled him to produce a half-hour film, The Grandmother (1970), which combined animation with live action. The Grandmother received several awards at film festivals, including the special jury prize from the Avoriaz Fantastic Film Festival. In 1970 Lynch enrolled in the Center for Advanced Studies of the American Film Institute in Beverly Hills, California. During this period, he began work on his first feature-length film, Eraserhead. The film was funded primarily by the American Film Institute and actress Sissy Spacek and took five years to produce. To support himself while filming, Lynch held a variety of jobs, including delivering newspapers, and often lived on the set of the film. Eraserhead became a cult success after its release and Lynch was hired to direct his first major Hollywood production, The Elephant Man (1980). The Elephant Man received widespread critical acclaim and was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including best director, best picture, and best adapted screenplay. The British Film Academy awarded The Elephant Man a British Academy Award for best film in 1980. Lynch was nominated for an Academy Award for best director for Blue Velvet in 1987. His 1990 film Wild at Heart received the Palme d'Or award at the Cannes Film Festival. Lynch's film Mulholland Drive (2001) earned him an Academy Award nomination for best director and won him the best director award at the Cannes Film Festival. Among his other projects, Lynch and Angelo Badalamenti co-wrote Industrial Symphony No. 1, an experimental theater piece that was released on videotape in 1990. In addition, Lynch's still photography and mixed-media artwork have been exhibited in major cities and collected in the book Images (1994). Lynch has also composed the lyrics for a number of the songs used in his films and has appeared as an actor in several productions, most notably as the recurring character Gordon Cole in Twin Peaks.

Major Works

Lynch's first feature-length film, Eraserhead is shot in...

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murky, black-and-white tones and is set in an industrial wasteland. The film revolves around Henry, a modern Everyman who agrees to wed his girlfriend, Mary, when he discovers she has become pregnant. Their baby, born prematurely, is a squalling, alien creature resembling a skinless animal, its organs bundled together by strips of bandages. Mary, unable to withstand the constant crying of the infant-creature, abandons Henry, leaving him to care for their offspring on his own. In desperation, Henry cuts open the bandages in which the baby is wrapped and the child explodes like a bomb. Henry then retreats back to his apartment and loses himself in the comforting world he imagines behind his radiator.The Elephant Man is set largely in Victorian London and is based on the true story of John Merrick, a victim of what is today believed to have been neurofibromatosis, a rare disease of the central nervous system that causes the formation of thick, fibrous tissue beneath its victim's skin. In the film, a physician named Frederick Treves discovers John Merrick in a traveling side-show of “freaks.” Treves rescues Merrick from his squalid conditions and presents him as a medical anomaly before an audience of physicians. Treves befriends Merrick and is amazed at how intelligent, gentle, and utterly lacking in bitterness Merrick is, despite his physical deformities. In 1984 Lynch directed Dune, an expensive Hollywood epic based on the best-selling science fiction novel by Frank Herbert. The story is set on a barren desert planet where a precious spice known as “mélange” is the source of an interplanetary war. Lynch's next film, Blue Velvet, is considered to be his masterpiece by several critics. The film is a modern day film noir, set in the Northwestern town of Lumberton. Blue Velvet focuses on Jeffrey Beaumont, a young college student who returns home to care for his ailing father and finds a severed ear in a vacant lot near his house. He begins investigating where the ear could have come from and is eventually led to Frank Booth, a sadistic drug dealer who has kidnapped the husband and son of a local nightclub singer named Dorothy Valens, in order to force Dorothy to perform bizarre and fetishistic sexual acts. Jeffrey becomes Dorothy's sympathetic lover, but one night he ambivalently indulges her masochistic desire to be hit; following a brutal confrontation with Frank, he is forced to acknowledge his own guilt for victimizing Dorothy. Wild at Heart is a black comedy road movie based on the novel by Barry Gifford. The film revolves around Lula, a sexually aggressive young woman whose mother orders the contract killing of her boyfriend, Sailor, because he may have witnessed the murder of Lula's father. Sailor, who strives to look, sing, and behave like singer Elvis Presley, decides to violate his parole and flee to California with Lula. The film features a wealth of imagery from the film The Wizard of Oz, including a scene where Lula's mother appears as the Wicked Witch of the West, riding her broomstick alongside the road.

After spending almost three decades as a professional filmmaker, Lynch chose to work in television in 1990 and—in collaboration with Mark Frost— created a thirty-part television series called Twin Peaks. Lynch wrote and directed several episodes of the series and served as a producer and creative consultant throughout the show's run. Named for its small-town setting, Twin Peaks makes use of multiple characters involved in continuous betrayals, secrets, mysteries, and conspiracies. Early episodes focus upon the efforts of Special Agent Dale Cooper, an eccentric boyish hero sent to Twin Peaks by the Federal Bureau of Investigations, to aid local law enforcement in locating the murderer of Laura Palmer, a popular homecoming queen with a suspicious past. Adultery, drugs, mystic visions, and the supernatural all figure into the serial narrative, which also features puns and non sequiturs, situation comedy, and a cast of eccentric characters, including the Log Lady, a widow who talks to a seemingly prescient log she carries with her. The series was cancelled after two seasons, but Lynch continued the Laura Palmer mystery in his feature-film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992). Lynch's next film, Lost Highway (1997), once again shows the influence of the film noir genre. The film has been noted for its rejection of conventional storytelling techniques, as evidenced by the protagonist metamorphosing into another character halfway through the film. In the first half of Lost Highway, Fred Madison, a saxophone player, finds a videotape that implicates him in the murder of his wife. Fred attempts to solve the crime but is eventually apprehended by the police as their prime suspect. While in jail, Fred “changes” into Pete Dayton, a young auto mechanic who is having an affair with the girlfriend of a gangster. The Straight Story (1999) represents a radical departure in style for Lynch. The film has a traditional linear narrative, there is no sexual or surrealistic imagery, and the film received a “G” rating from the Motion Picture Association of America—a rating typically reserved for children's films. The Straight Story is based on the true story of Alvin Straight, an Iowa man in his seventies. Alvin learns that his long-estranged brother is dying and decides to visit him to repair their relationship. Because Alvin cannot drive a car, he decides to drive his riding lawnmower over three hundred miles to his brother's home in Wisconsin. During his trip, which takes several weeks, Alvin encounters a variety of Midwestern characters, most of whom are eager to aid him in his journey. Marking a return to Lynch's signature film style, Mulholland Drive was originally produced as a pilot for a television series. After the network rejected the pilot, Lynch obtained funding to add another forty-five minutes to the original version and released it as a feature film. The plot of the film—named after a hilltop road that runs through Los Angeles—follows a young woman who survives a violent car crash but loses her memory. She eventually takes the name Rita, after actress Rita Hayworth in the film Gilda. Rita meets Betty, a young woman from Canada who has come to Los Angeles with the hope of becoming a film star. Together, Rita and Betty attempt to solve the mystery of Rita's true identity. The plot of Mulholland Drive is narrated as a dream which deviates from conventional expectations of narrative coherence and plot resolution. Like Lost Highway,Mulholland Drive features characters who switch identities or assume double identities throughout the film.

Critical Reception

Though Eraserhead opened to scathing reviews and ambivalent audiences, it eventually became a cult favorite and critics have compared it to the surrealist films of Luis Buñuel, most notably Un Chien Andalou. Reviewers have been divided on Lynch's cinematic treatment of John Merrick's physical deformities in The Elephant Man. While some critics have commended the emotional elements of Merrick's story, others have criticized Lynch for exploiting the sensational elements of his subject matter. Dune was both a critical and commercial failure—a number of reviewers have criticized the length and lack of suspense in the film. Opening to critical acclaim and box-office success, Blue Velvet has been praised by several critics as Lynch's best film to date. Critics have admired the film's bold neo-noir cinematic style, especially its use of highly saturated colors to create a surreal atmosphere. Blue Velvet has been considered to be highly controversial by some, due to its graphic display of sex and violence towards women. Commentators have debated whether Lynch's portrayal of sexual violence was gratuitous and exploitative or intentionally shocking in order to provide an alternative perspective to the emotionally distant violence portrayed in many mainstream films. Twin Peaks has received widespread critical acclaim and held a large audience during its first season. Reviewers have praised the series' effective combination of a conventional detective story with quirky humor and pathos. Feminist critics have debated whether Lynch's treatment of Laura Palmer's sexual abuse exploited women or expressed a feminist perspective on family violence. Much of the critical response to Lost Highway has revolved around its unconventional narrative structure and the inexplicable transformation of the central protagonist halfway through the film. Critics have variously defended Lost Highway, with some arguing that the film's narrative is based on a dreamlike framework. The Straight Story has received a mixed critical response with some reviewers complaining that the film was too blandly sweet and sentimental. A number of critics have disagreed with this assessment and have praised Lynch for constructing his most fully realized and skillfully constructed narrative yet. Commentators have often compared Mulholland Drive to Lost Highway, noting that both films are structured around dreamlike sequences and recurring visual motifs rather than following a traditional storyline. Many critics have found the absence of closure in Mulholland Drive to be disappointing, revealing an overall lack of meaning and substance in the film.


Principal Works