Lynch Mob: Happy Birthday to the Maverick Weaver of American Nightmares

David Lynch, the once boyish maverick of underground visions and the nightmares under the façade of normalcy, turned 65 this week. A little older, a little grayer but still making films the only way he knows how: on his own terms. I had the good fortune to interview Lynch a few years ago, when he financed, produced and distributed Inland Empire outside the studio system. “It’s mostly common sense making films,” he explained. “If you can get your film into a theater, that’s all you need. And now you can make your own DVDs. If you have a conduit to stores, you put them down that conduit. Again, it’s a lot of common sense.”

Kim Morgan celebrated the birthday boy at Sunset Gun by revisiting her essay on Mulholland Dr.: “the man gets what drives our subconscious, our sweet dreams, our nightmares.”

I’ll chime in by picking out five more of my favorite Lynch films (plus his paradigm-changing TV series as a bonus) from thirty years of filmmaking: his strangest, most visionary and most perversely beautiful journeys through the curdled brick road of his mind. And all available on home video, in some cases in DVD releases produced by Lynch himself.

Eraserhead (1977) (Absurda)

“In heaven, everything is fine,” but in Eraserhead nothing is fine. It’s grim, disturbed, mutated, claustrophobic, a world that appears to be unraveling—or, more accurately, decaying—before our eyes. Jack Nance stars as the doughy, dim husband who escapes his grimy, droning life by watching the icky mutant cabaret that plays under his radiator. That’s as clear a description of the plot you’re bound to get. This is an existence where dinner squirms to get away as it’s being carved up and the newborn offspring of a dumbstruck couple is a freaky chicken baby that mewls and cries until it drives the maternal impulses right out of its horrified mother. Lynch shot the film over the course of a year with a loyal cast and crew that, at times, lived with Lynch on the very set of the film. There was nothing like it when it emerged in 1977 and became the quintessential midnight movie experience. See today, it is pure, primordial Lynch: a nightmare world of industrial slums and alienated folk, set to a soundtrack of noise that gets under your skin, your nails and your skull. Robert Cumbow came as close to anyone in capturing the experience in a review he wrote in 1978: “This is what madness might be like, he makes you think, this oppressive absurdity, now funny, now scary, now just plain weird, but making a kind of sense that has nothing at all to do with reason.”

It’s fitting that Lynch’s first feature, which he produced independently, is also the first DVD that he produced through his own label, Absurda. He personally supervised the transfer and the digital master and he participated in the documentary featurette “Stories,” which is centered around Lynch discussing the making of the film. For most directors this wouldn’t be anything special, but Lynch had quite conspicuously made himself absent from the supplements of studio-produced DVDs of his work in the past. This was the first time he recorded an interview specifically for the home video release of one of his films. It apparently was painless enough, for it wasn’t his last.

Blue Velvet (1986) (MGM)

David Lynch looks behind the smiling faces and stucco houses of small town America and finds a shadow world of pure evil. From the opening shots Lynch turns the Technicolor picture postcard images of middle class homes and tree-lined lanes into a dreamy vision on the edge of nightmare. College boy hero Kyle MacLachlan and Nancy Drew high school innocent Laura Dern delve into a mysterious case revolving around a severed human ear and MacLachlan moves from boy scout to voyeur to participant, plunging into a nightmare of sex and sadism he’s alternately fascinated and repulsed by. Lynch’s eerily mundane sets and locations, real world settings stripped to a ghostly austerity, make his odyssey all the more insidious.

"Candy colored clown!"

Dennis Hopper’s manic, obscenity shouting performance as sadistic drug dealer Frank became his Hollywood comeback. Isabella Rosselini is terrifyingly desperate as Hopper’s sexual slave (and later MacLachlan’s illicit lover) and Dean Stockwell purrs through his role as Hopper’s oh-so-suave buddy. The Special Edition release features an excellent 70 minute documentary that features everyone but Lynch sharing production stories and offering interpretations of this enigmatic, nightmarish masterpiece. The interviews are, of course, shot against a blue velvet curtain.

Twin Peaks (1990-1991) (Paramount)

Pour yourself a cup of joe, cut a slice of cherry pie, and sit back for David Lynch’s surreal soap opera / supernatural murder mystery. Kyle MacLachlan headlines as an FBI agent who brings his unconventional techniques (including psychic premonitions and dream-time clues) to the Pacific Northwest town to solve a murder. Lynch (in collaboration with co-creator Mark Frost) shook up the expectations of network TV with this dark and delirious rural noir that stirs extramarital affairs, drug dealers, sexual perversion, and pure psychic evil into the new wooded heartland of America: rural Washington State. The astounding “red room” dream scene that ends the third episode is perhaps the strangest single moment in the history of American television. The abbreviated first season ends on a mesmerizing cliffhanger, but the series slips in its second season, becoming a strange spoof of soap opera tropes: amnesia, split personalities, alter egos, brain-dead villains roused back to life, perhaps even an alien abduction.

The show ran 30 episodes altogether (including the feature-length pilot, which finally debuted on DVD after years in limbo) and Lynch himself directs six episodes, including the pilot and the series finale, where he brings back the metaphysical madness in a cliffhanger finale engineered to delight and distress in equal measure: a return to the red-curtain dream room that plays like a door-slamming chase by way of a supernatural game of tag with a wicked bite. And don’t forget Lynch’s recurring appearance in the show as a hearing-challenged FBI boss who shouts every line.

Lost Highway (1997) (Universal)

Bill Pullman is a tightly wound jazz musician sent to prison for murdering his wife (Patricia Arquette)—but did he? How does a young man (Balthazar Getty) suddenly appear in his death row cell? Why does Arquette reappear as a femme fatale pulling young Getty into a conspiracy to murder? And just who – or what – is the ghoulish mystery man with the pale complexion and heavy eyes (Robert Blake)? In one sense, this is David Lynch’s return to “Blue Velvet” territory, but he’s created a whole new paradigm in this film (one that reappears in “Mulholland Dr.” and “Inland Empire”): the terrible act against a loved one so transgressive it shatters reality and twists the world into a mobius-strip of a psycho thriller. With it’s searing images, dark soundtrack by Trent Reznor, and the damnedest tease of a narrative, “Lost Highway” is a wild ride of doubles and dopplegangers, time shifts, surreal images and plot twists that will rattle around your mind long after the film is over. No extras on this disc, which made its belated DVD debut only a couple of years ago, and there is significant room for improvement in the image quality, but at least this essential of nineties cinema is on DVD.

The Straight Story (1999) (Disney)

A G-rated family-friendly tale from America’s most subversive filmmaker? Yes indeed, and without sacrificing any of his vision. David Lynch puts his measured pacing, out-of-step conversational style, and mesmerizing images to the true story of Alvin Straight, the 73-year-old man who drove for six weeks on a riding mower across two states to patch up a decade old feud with his estranged brother. Lynch skews this delightful journey with oddball moments of weirdness and wonder and Richard Farnsworth grounds it with withered wisdom from behind wispy hair and twinkling blue eyes. A luminous Sissie Spacek gives a heartbreaking performance as his daughter, turning the lurching rhythm of her speech impediment into something musical. It could easily slide into melancholy and sentimentality without Lynch’s sensibility, an odd mix of up-by-your bootstraps American conservatism, on-the-road romanticism, and quiet moments of wonder. Lynch transforms Straight’s story into a truly beautiful tale from the American heartland. No supplements on this one either.

Lost in the 'Inland Empire'

Inland Empire (2006) (Absurda/Rhino)

“It’s a story that happened yesterday, but I know it’s tomorrow,” says Nikki Grace (Laura Dern), a famous Hollywood actress who has just taken a demanding role in a possibly cursed film, to her co-star Devon Berk (Justin Theroux) during a break in a read-through. “That doesn’t make any sense,” he responds. No, not unless you give yourself over Lynch’s sensibility and decidedly metaphysical approach to cause and effect. Riding a figure-eight narrative that twists upon himself, we watch Grace go on a journey of metamorphosis, a shifting existence of multiple identities that criss-cross, collide, and finally blur together while even strangers stories about Polish gangsters, scenes from a surreal sitcom in rabbit suits and spontaneous dance numbers fill in the edges. If you are willing to lose yourself in Lynch’s sensibilities, you’ll find a hypnotic and richly textural experience that challenges invites you to make your own connections through the echoes of stories and imagery and odd dialogue. Jeremy Irons plays the director of the film within the film, Lynch regular Grace Zabriskie is a Polish neighbor whose appearance seems to throw Nikki’s life into a new reality, and Harry Dean Stanton and Diane Ladd co-star.

Not only did David Lynch produce the film outside the Hollywood system, he produced his own 2-Disk (his spelling) DVD release, overseeing everything from mastering the film to producing his own slate of supplements. There is no commentary track, of course, as Lynch steadfastly refuses to explain his films or offer his own interpretations, but his extras are wonderful: “More Things That Happened” offers 75 minutes of deleted footage edited into a surreal sister film of its own, the scenes connected by music and rhythm more than narrative coherence, like a dream film companion piece; “Lynch 2” features 30 minutes of behind the scenes footage of Lynch; “Stories” could be Lynch’s answer to a commentary track, with 41 minutes of Lynch filmed against a red curtain (of course) talking about all sorts of things, some of it even related to Inland Empire.