Tag Archives: David Lynch

DAVID LYNCH’S THE ELEPHANT MAN (1980)

Critics and audiences were surprised by ‘s Elephant Man (1980), which in itself is surprising. Apparently after Eraserhead (1977) became a cult favorite, the assumption was that Lynch was unable to tell a linear narrative. It’s the very old either/or label that audiences are prone toward. (Lynch would delightfully prove his narrative skills again with 1999’s quirky, but linear, The Straight Story).

The only critic of note who was not surprised was Roger Ebert, in one of his most pedestrian essays. Hopelessly hindered by his belief in the bourgeois definition of “courage,” Ebert delivers a polemic,  writing that the death of Joseph Merrick[1] was, essentially, a suicide. Ebert further embarrasses himself in questioning the film’s point. We could just as easily question the point of virtually every film by or . Likewise, we could ask the purpose of an outsider art gallery. With dignity, grace, and sensuality, Lynch’s The Elephant Man edifies the outsider and obstructs our tendency to judge. Throughout his body of work, Lynch sympathetically locates the pulse of the alien, foreigner, and refugee with authentic depth. (Perhaps we should put Lynch into office instead of Donald Trump). Comparatively, is entirely artifice.

Broken down, the narrative of The Elephant Man is quite orthodox, but Lynch imbues the film with such an imaginative touch that it never fails to feel like a revelation. Smartly, Lynch opens the film in a full-blown horror milieu with ecstatic black and white cinematography from Freddie Francis (a Hammer Studios regular), which paves the way to Lynch shattering all of our preconceived notions. He is aided considerably by ‘s nuanced portrayal of Dr. Treves, who serves as the point of entry into the traumatic life of the so-called Elephant Man. Matching Hopkins is ‘s sensitive, tour de force portrayal of Merrick. Together, the two actors locate Lynch’s rhythmic pulse.

Wendy Hiller as the nurse, Mrs. Mothershead, and as the hospital’s Governor Carr-Gomm are equally effective. The film is hampered, however, by the predictable hammy acting of Hammer Horror veteran Freddie Jones as Mr. Bytes and, surprisingly, by Anne Bancroft’s superficial performance as upper-class Shakespearean actress Madge Kendal.

Still from The Elephant Man (1980)

Like the monster of ‘s Frankenstein (1931), Merrick is the protagonist in Lynch’s film. Set in turn of the century London, Treves rescues Merrick from the cruel Mr. Bytes, who regularly beats his freak. To his astonishment, Treves discovers that Merrick is both cultured and genteel.  After Carr-Gom’s eventual approval, both Treves and Mothershead care for Merrick until his death.

Lynch says quite a bit about class distinction and pulls no punches. The lower-class, uneducated masses are not spared simply because they are destitute. Indeed, Lynch depicts them as prone to barbarism. Nor does the film congratulate the aristocracy: as Mothershead points out, “we are exhibiting Merrick all over gain.”

In lesser hands, The Elephant Man could have easily been preachy, overtly sentimental (think late Chaplin) or caved into a melodramatic crescendo (Think Spielberg). Instead, Hurt’s performance breaks through Christopher Tucker’s ingenious makeup. Ultimately, it is that portrayal which we come away with. That Lynch never allows aesthetics to impede upon the soul of the film is a testament to his craftsmanship.

  1. The real life Joseph Merrick was referred to as “John” Merrick in the play and film. []

203. WILD AT HEART (1990)

“This whole world’s wild at heart and weird on top.”–Lula Fortune, Wild at Heart

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Diane Ladd, , , J.E. Freeman

PLOT: After being released from prison for manslaughter, Sailor Ripley and love-of-his-life Lula Fortune head west to California, but are waylaid by by Lula’s psychotically protective mother and various colorful agents under the employ of the effete and mysterious Mr. Reindeer. Their travels take them to New Orleans, where Johnny Farragut, a hired detective, tracks them down. As the noose tightens, the West-bound lovers make a detour to the town of Big Tuna, where, unbeknownst to Sailor, hit man Bobby Peru awaits his arrival.

Still from Wild at Heart (1990)
BACKGROUND:

  • Wild at Heart was adapted from Barry Gifford’s pulpy 1989 novel “Wild at Heart” (which gave birth to multiple sequels). While the movie ending’s differed greatly from the book’s, Gifford was pleased and praised David Lynch’s choice.
  • Winner of the 1990 Palme D’Or prize at Cannes, the year before fellow Certified Weird movie Barton Fink. Film critic Roger Ebert headed a large group of those dissatisfied with the jury’s choice, and was among many American reviewers who were much less impressed than the Cannes crowd.
  • Wild at Heart was released just before “NC-17” became a ratings option with the MPAA later in 1990. It scraped by with an “R” rating by obscuring the effects of a nasty shotgun head wound. (It was subsequently re-rated NC-17 for the home video release).
  • Actors from Lynch’s then-current hit series “Twin Peaks” who have cameo roles in Wild at Heart: Sherilyn Fenn, , , David Patrick Kelly, and (appearing in his fourth Lynch feature).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Like so many offerings from David Lynch, Wild at Heart is riddled with great shots—but an early image of Sailor Ripley pointing defiantly at the woman who just tried to have him killed captures his character’s sheer force-of-nature that drives the film’s unrestrained progression.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Lipstick face; cockroach underpants; the Good Witch

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: While in the middle of working on his hit soap-opera” Twin Peaks,” David Lynch took a break to make something that allowed him to explore his weirder side. Throughout Wild at Heart, the viewer is exposed to such a smorgasbord of road-movie madness—highway hallucinations, small town weirdos, classic-cool criminals, a mountain of lipstick, and dozens of lit matches—that by the end of the movie, Lynch has already accomplished most of what and would spend the subsequent decade retreading.

Original trailer for Wild at Heart

COMMENTS: Before he got lost on a highway and before he went to Continue reading 203. WILD AT HEART (1990)

201. BLUE VELVET (1986)

“It’s a strange world.”–Sandy Williams, Blue Velvet

Must See

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , , Isabella Rossellini, Laura Dern,

PLOT: While home from college to visit his ailing father, who has suffered a stroke, Jeffrey Beaumont finds a severed human ear in a field. Though warned by his neighbor, Detective Williams, that the case is a police issue and he should not ask any questions, the curious Jeffrey decides to seek answers on his own, enlisting Williams’ daughter Sandy, a high school senior, in his investigation. The trail leads to a melancholy torch singer named Dorothy Vallens, and when Jeffrey hides in her closet after nearly being caught snooping in her apartment, he witnesses a horror he never imagined, which forever shatters his innocence.

Still from Blue Velvet (1986)
BACKGROUND:

  • Blue Velvet was David Lynch’s comeback film after the disastrous flop of 1984’s Dune.
  • Warner Brother’s commissioned a treatment of Lynch’s basic idea for the film, but in 1986 no major studio would touch the finished Blue Velvet script because of its themes of sexual violence. The film was produced and distributed by Dino De Laurentiis (who formed a distribution company just for this release). De Laurentiis was known for taking chances on risky or salacious movies, whether exploitation or art films. He gave Lynch final cut in exchange for a reduced salary (possibly hoping that Lynch would refuse his insulting offer and chose a more commercial project).
  • Blue Velvet is considered Lynch’s comeback film, but even more so Dennis Hopper’s. Hopper, who became a star when he wrote, directed and acted in the 1969 counterculture hit Easy Rider, developed a serious polydrug addiction problem throughout the 1970s. By the 1980s he had earned a reputation as unreliable and difficult to work with, and landed only minor roles after his memorable turn as a maniacal photographer in Apocalypse Now (1979). He entered rehab in 1983 and was sober for a year and a half before making Blue Velvet. Looking for a role to revive his career, Hopper told Lynch, “You have to give me the role of Frank Booth, because I am Frank Booth!”
  • Booth’s character was originally written by Lynch to breathe helium from his gas tank, but Hopper convinced the director that amyl nitrate would be a more appropriate inhalant for Frank. The actual drug the villain breathes is never specified in the film.
  • This was the first collaboration between Lynch and composer Angelo Badalamenti. Badalamenti was hired to be Isabella Rossellini’s voice coach for her singing numbers, but Lynch liked his arrangements so much he hired him to produce the film’s soundtrack. Badalamenti would work on the score of all of Lynch’s future films until INLAND EMPIRE, and is perhaps best known for the “Twin Peaks” theme.
  • , who played a part in all of Lynch’s feature films until his death in 1996, has a small part here as one of Frank’s hoodlums.
  • Lynch was nominated for a Best Director Oscar, losing to for Platoon. Dennis Hopper’s performance was widely praised, but was too profane for Academy consideration; he was nominated for Supporting Actor for Hoosiers, where he played an assistant high school basketball coach struggling with alcoholism, instead.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: “Suave” Dean Stockwell performing a karaoke version of Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams,” an illuminated microphone lighting his lightly-rouged face.

THREE WEIRD THINGS: Dream of the robins; candy-colored clown; dead man standing

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Nearly everyone describes Blue Velvet as “weird,” but most of the time, when pressed, it’s hard to pin down exactly why. Yes, there is sexual perversity, a campy and impossibly white-bread Lumberton, and one of the strangest lip-sync numbers ever, but if we were to actually sit down and graph Blue Velvet on a axis of Lynchian weirdness, we would find it closer to The Straight Story pole than it is to the incoherent extremes of INLAND EMPIRE. But despite the fact that Blue Velvet is among Lynch’s less-weird works, it’s one of his greatest. The clear and powerful presentation of key Lynch themes—the contrast between innocence and experience, and sexuality’s fateful role in marking that line—make it a crucial entry in this weirdest of director’s oeuvre. Blue Velvet‘s influence is so monumental that it would be a crime to leave it off the List of the Best Weird Movies ever made.


Original trailer for Blue Velvet

 COMMENTS: David Lynch’s Blue Velvet exists in a heightened reality—and a heightened depravity—but essentially it is a Continue reading 201. BLUE VELVET (1986)

DAVID LYNCH’S THE STRAIGHT STORY (1999)

Among idiosyncratic filmmakers, it seems only  can produce something G-rated and linear, for Disney Studios, without sacrificing his inherent quirkiness. To tell it straight, The Straight Story, along with 1980’s The Elephant Man (another linear film) may be his most accomplished and surprising work. It makes one wish Lynch had gone this route more often, which is to take nothing away from a string of masterful opuses like Eraserhead (1977), Blue Velvet (1986), Mulholland Drive (1999), and Inland Empire (2006). Even more, one wishes Disney would have and gone this route more often, instead of bombarding us with the dreck they have become infamous for. Oddly, it took someone like Lynch to render Disney substantial again, albeit briefly.

Written and produced by frequent Lynch collaborator Mary Sweeney with cinematography by Freddie Francis (of Hammer Horror and The Elephant Man), Straight Story is based on the true story of Alvin Straight. Richard Farnsworth is perfectly cast as the eccentric protagonist. The film is a tour de force for Farnsworth, whose last film this was (dying of cancer, he committed suicide months after filming). He is like a perfectly used note in Lynch’s composition.

Reading the plot of the film, one suspects a typical Hallmark-styled production, which is probably why Mickey’s Clubhouse chose to distribute it. The Straight Story, like much of Lynch’s oeuvre, resonates with a pronounced, authentic spirituality. It is Lynch’s personal direction and interaction with his cast that gives this film its three-dimensional purity. Lynch has never overly plotted his films, which is why Dune (1984) proved an poor match for him. Rather, he is like a figurative painter, who works well with tenacious personalities, such as Laura Dern (in three films), , , and Farnsworth.

Still from The Straight Story (1999)Finding that his estranged brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton) has recently had a stroke, Alvin (Farnsworth) sees one last life mission. Having not spoken to Lyle for a decade, very much ill himself, living with mentally ill daughter (Sissy Spacek) and shorn of both license and car, Alvin hops on his tractor mower and drives 300 plus miles to visit Lyle.

Lynch and Farnsworth find poetry in Alvin’s pain. It is not self-pitying. Alvin has a past as a military sniper and, despite his simplicity and nostalgia, his character rings original and virtuous.

On the road, Alvin encounters an assortment of wanderers. Like Alvin, they possess a whimsical quality, but are never condescended to as caricatures. One might suspect a Kerouac road fable at the film’s center, but Lynch has no movement to propagate. He is only interested in his people and how each comes to purgation.

The unsung heroes of this film are cinematographer Francis, who composes his beautiful, yet dolorous landscapes with the aesthetic assurance of a Van Gogh, and composer Angelo Badalamenti, whose acoustic score is diaphanously choreographed to a  lyrical odyssey.

To many filmgoers, the name David Lynch conjures up an image of a surrealist boogey man. Yet, Lynch has often been able to accomplish the seemingly impossible within surrealism: to paint individuals that we can identify and empathize with within a capricious, mesmerizingly-paced panorama. Even Lynch’s most skeptical, misanthropic followers will find edification in The Straight Story, without burdensome bathos or heavy-handedness.

133. LOST HIGHWAY (1997)

Recommended

“In my mind, it’s so much fun to have something that has clues and is mysterious — something that is understood intuitively rather than just being spoonfed to you. That’s the beauty of cinema, and it’s hardly ever even tried. These days, most films are pretty easily understood, and so people’s minds stop working.”–David Lynch

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: , Patricia Arquette, Balthazar Getty, Robert Blake, Robert Loggia

PLOT: Fred is a free jazz saxophonist who finds that mysterious videotapes are being dropped off on his doorstep. After an encounter with a mysterious pale man at a party, he blacks out finds himself accused of the murder of his wife. In prison Fred begins having headaches, and then one day he disappears and a completely different man—a young mechanic—is discovered in his death row cell.

Still from Lost Highway (1997)

BACKGROUND:

  • The screenplay to Lost Highway was co-written by Barry Gifford, who also wrote the novel “Wild at Heart” that Lynch adapted into a film in 1990.
  • Lost Highway received two “thumbs down” ratings from Siskel & Ebert’s “At the Movies” syndicated movie review program. Lynch insisted the movie poster be rewritten to highlight the critics’ dual pans, describing the bad ratings as “two good reasons to go and see Lost Highway.”
  • The film cost about 15 million dollars to make but grossed less than 4 million at the U.S. box office.
  • Lost Highway boasts a number of cameo roles, including rockers Henry Rollins as a guard and Marilyn Manson as a porn actor,  mainstay  in a voiceover, and Richard Prior as one of Pete’s co-workers.
  • This film marks the last onscreen appearance of , who appeared in all of Lynch’s films until his death in 1996.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: Robert Blake’s “Mystery Man,” an eyebrow-free, perpetually grinning pasty-faced ghoul who likes to crash L.A. cocktail parties and whose idea of small talk is to call himself on his cell phone to deliver obscure metaphysical portents of doom.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Imagine you’re on a desert highway. It’s long past midnight and you can ‘t see anything but the onrushing yellow traffic lines a few feet in front of the car’s headlights.  is crooning “funny how secrets travel” from the stereo. David Lynch is at the wheel, he’s jittery from drinking too much coffee, and neither you nor he has no idea where you’re going. Strap yourself in. It’s going to be a wild ride.


Original trailer for Lost Highway

COMMENTS: Made five years after the divisive mixed blessing that was Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Lost Highway marks the beginning of the Continue reading 133. LOST HIGHWAY (1997)

LIST CANDIDATE: TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME (1992)

DIRECTED BY: David Lynch

FEATURING, , Moira Kelly, Chris Isaak, Keifer Sutherland,

PLOT: This prequel to the events of the cult TV show explores the sordid story behind homecoming queen/secret bad girl Laura Palmer’s last days before her brutal murder.

Still from Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)
WHY IT MIGHT MAKE THE LIST: In terms of its chances of making the List, Fire Walk with Me‘s pluses and minuses are the same: the fact that it’s so intimately entwined with the TV series it sprang from. That makes it a good candidate to represent a franchise that has blessed us with some of the most memorably weird moving images of all time. The downsides are that this feature film makes no sense whatsoever to anyone who’s not thoroughly familiar with the minutiae of the “Twin Peaks” universe; further, much of what goes on in its 135 minute running time feels like housecleaning, tying up numerous loose ends from the canceled series.

COMMENTS: Early on in Fire Walk with Me a woman in a red fright wig walks in front of three FBI agents, makes funny faces and hand gestures, spins around, and leaves without saying a word. Typical Lynchian randomness, right? Not so fast; one of the agents later explains to the other that every article of clothing the woman wore, every gesture she made, held a secret meaning. After his superior decodes the entire piece of performance art for him, the junior G-man mentions that the lady was also wearing a blue rose. The more experienced agent compliments his powers of observation, but informs him “I can’t tell you about that.” In a meta-symbolic sense, this sequence explains what the viewer can expect from Lynch’s film: many seemingly abstruse images will have a coded meaning in the story, but something will still remain hidden that the director can’t tell you about. Whether he will refuse to explain it, or whether he doesn’t know himself, is left ambiguous. Fire Walk with Me proves muddled in more than it’s symbolism; it’s also more than a bit of a mess in structure and purpose. It’s set in Twin Peaks’ familiar universe, but the tone is far darker and weirder than the TV show. The project is also constantly pulled in two different directions due to its conflicting Continue reading LIST CANDIDATE: TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME (1992)

TWIN PEAKS (TV) (1990-1991)

Must See

DIRECTED BY: David Lynch (6 episodes), multiple directors

FEATURING: , Michael Ontkean, , Sherilyn Fenn, , James Marshall, Sheryl Lee, Piper Laurie, Richard Beymer, Mädchen Amick, Eric DaRe, Joan Chen, Jack Nance, , Catherine Coulson, , many others

PLOT: A mystically-inclined FBI agent investigates a murder in a small town, incidentally uncovering webs of crime, adultery, and supernatural encounters among the town’s denizens.

Still from Twin Peaks (TV series)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: It’s a TV series, not a movie. But despite its small screen origins, “Twin Peaks” is far too influential in the weird movie world to escape coverage on this site.

COMMENTS: “Leo Johnson was shot, Jacques Renault was strangled, the mill burned, Shelly and Pete got smoke inhalation, Catherine and Josie are missing, Nadine is in a coma from taking sleeping pills.”

Let’s back up a moment.

Laura Palmer’s body, wrapped in plastic, washed up on the banks of the lake by the Packard Sawmill on April 8, 1990, the date the “Twin Peaks” pilot episode first aired. I was a senior in college at that time and a David Lynch fan; I read in the Dallas Morning News the day before that the Blue Velvet auteur had created a television show and convinced everyone in my circle of friends to watch the first airing. We weren’t alone; thanks to advance buzz and favorable scheduling, the pilot episode was seen by an unheard of 34 million viewers (that figure would be disappointing for a Super Bowl, but for a TV movie it was a phenomenal score).

Based on the pilot’s unexpected success, the series about the murdered homecoming queen, the whiz-kid FBI agent using ancient Tibetan fortune-telling techniques to eliminate suspects, and the small town full of liars, adulterers and backstabbers was picked up for an additional seven episodes. What followed in those seven hours of broadcast television was a soap opera with the depth of an art film and a mystery with overtones of a supernatural horror movie; oh, and it was also a comedy. Over the course of that first season special agent Dale Cooper (MacLachlan) must have drank a couple of gallons of coffee and eaten three or four cherry pies (one slice at a time) at Norma’s diner as suspicions about the murderer turned from Laura’s Continue reading TWIN PEAKS (TV) (1990-1991)

CAPSULE: TWIN PEAKS (PILOT) (1990)

DIRECTED BY: David Lynch

FEATURING: , Michael Ontkean, Ray Wise, , , James Marshall, Sherilyn Fenn, Jack Nance, Sheryl Lee

PLOT: The murder of a homecoming queen brings an eccentric FBI agent to a small Northwestern town seething with secrets.

Still from "Twin Peaks" pilot (1990)

WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Despite being among the best and tensest 90 minutes ever to air on American television, the pilot of “Twin Peaks” won’t make the List of the 366 Best Weird Movies for two reasons. First, it’s not weird enough; although future installments would supply some of the WTF-iest moments ever to grace the small screen, the opening installment of the epic series plays things very understated and close to the vest, merely hinting at the undercurrent of uncomfortable weirdness that would become the show’s dominant tone. Second, and more importantly, the “Twin Peaks” pilot is incomplete. It ends on a cliffhanger, and not only is nothing resolved, many of the main storylines have not even been introduced yet.

Both those objections are addressed in the alternate international version of the pilot, which added an additional twenty minutes of footage which solved Laura Palmer’s murder (differently than the series would in Season 2). This version was shot at the financing studio’s insistence (they hoped to recoup some of their four million dollar investment if the series was not picked up) and released as a theatrical feature overseas. The alternate ending includes the iconic “Man from Another Place” dream sequence which would later grace episode 2, which by itself scores enough weird points to get the international version into consideration. The ending also resolves the mystery and the story; unfortunately, it also ruins it. Because the pilot didn’t have time to explore the forest of suspects, red herrings and side plots the script hints at, to someone who had never seen the series before the solution comes out of nowhere and would makes you wonder what the point of introducing all the minor characters was. This out of place, tacked-on ending perhaps makes the international version play even weirder, but it destroys the pilot’s fragile beauty—an unforgivable sin.

COMMENTS: After having bottomed out with his confusing flop adaptation of Frank Herbert’s Continue reading CAPSULE: TWIN PEAKS (PILOT) (1990)

97. MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001)

“Do not demystify.  When you know too much, you can never see the film the same way again. It’s ruined for you for good. All the magic leaks out, and it’s putrefied.”–David Lynch, explaining to Terrence Rafferty why he will not record director’s commentaries

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: David Lynch

FEATURING: , Laura Harring,

PLOT: A woman (Harring) is involved in a nighttime accident on Mulholland Drive and flees into the city of Los Angeles with amnesia; she sneaks into an apartment soon to be occupied by naive young Betty (Watts), who has come to Hollywood hoping to find stardom.  Meanwhile, a film director (Theroux) finds himself pressured by mysterious mobsters to cast an unknown actress in his upcoming project.  Betty helps the amnesiac woman try to recover her identity, but the clues only lead to a strange avant-garde nightclub, a key, a box, and a sudden reality shift that throws everything that came before into confusion.

Still from Mulholland Drive (2001)


BACKGROUND:

  • Lynch originally intended Mulholland Drive as a TV series in the mold of “Twin Peaks.”  When the networks passed on the pilot, the French producer Studio Canal stepped in with additional financing to turn the pilot into a feature film.  In between ABC’s proactive cancellation of the series and the creation of the film version, all of the sets and props were dismantled, forcing Lynch to come up with a different way to complete the story.
  • Monty Montgomery, whose appearance as “The Cowboy” is an uncanny show-stopper, is a Hollywood movie producer (who produced Wild at Heart for Lynch).  Mulholland Drive is his only acting credit (he’s listed as “Lafayette Montgomery” in the credits).
  • Lynch insisted no chapter stops be included on the DVD.
  • The original DVD release included an insert from Lynch containing “10 Keys to Unlocking This Thriller.”
  • Mulholland Drive received significant critical acclaim, nabbing Lynch a Best Director award at Cannes (shared with Joel Coen for The Man Who Wasn’t There) and a Best Director Oscar nomination.  It was voted best picture of the Year by the Boston Film Critics Society, the Chicago Film Critics Association, the new York Film Critics Circle, and the Online Film Critics Society (where it tied with Memento in the voting).  It was also voted best foreign picture by the Academy Award equivalents of Brazil, France, Spain, and Australia.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The Silencio nightclub, decorated in Lynch’s trademark red velvet drapes and staffed by his trademark subconscious monsters.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: If the massive reality shifts and actresses unexpectedly playing


Original trailer for Mulholland Drive

multiple roles is not enough for you, then the monster behind the Winkie’s, a Spanish version of Roy Orbison’s “Crying” delivered by a woman who collapses onstage, and a mafia-style media syndicate run by a deformed dwarf who uses an eyebrowless cowboy as his right-hand man will convince you that we are deep in that subconscious pit of eroticism, kitsch and weirdness that can only go by the name Lynchland.

COMMENTS:  Oddly enough, what may be the most important scene in Mulholland Drive Continue reading 97. MULHOLLAND DRIVE (2001)