With the labyrinthine billowing video miasma of Inland Empire now marking a new point of departure in his ever-shifting approach to filmmaking, the time seems about right for a fresh survey of David Lynch’s always strange, sinuous and stimulating body of work. This weekend Edmonton's finest venue Metro Cinema is doing just that, screening a mini-retrospective as well as the Edmonton premiere of the anonymously authored documentary Lynch. The quartet of features screened may represent only a fraction of the Lynch canon, yet it’s an intriguing and diverse selection that includes his defining debut, an indisputable classic, as well as two other titles, both of which I’ll look at more closely, that help flesh out a sense of the distinctive filmmaker’s considerable adaptability as well as the extent to which he can follow his most single-minded tangents into utter weirdness.
After making one of the most startling debuts of the decade with Eraserhead (1977), an endlessly wondrous, deeply oneiric odyssey into paternal anxiety, deadpan humour, painterly grotesquerie and mechanical subjugation, Lynch could have followed any number of paths. How curious that the one he’d eventually take would lead him to a Hollywood biopic, albeit one entirely in keeping with Lynch’s aesthetic and thematic concerns, and one that would allow him to have his cake and eat it: an unapologetically humanist, prestige-laden, Oscar-nominated film that’s also drenched in phantasmagorical imagery and the faux-naïve poeticism that would become his stock in trade.
The Elephant Man (80) tells the tragic story of John Merrick, the astoundingly disfigured man that would gradually go from thrilling the Victorian working class as a sideshow freak bar none to titillating the Victorian upper class as the pet project of the well-intentioned Dr Frederick Treves. A nightmarish montage reveals a photograph, a parade of elephants, and a woman twisting her head back and forth in agony in an ashen blur, a low bestial moan standing in for her silent screams: the film’s haunting opening alone is as indicative of Lynch’s tack as anything in Eraserhead.
Photographed by Freddie Francis in silvery hues that seem to coat the sinister industrial landscapes, patterned floors and cobblestones in mercury, with Lynch marveling at Merrick’s collection of talismans with the same awe as their owner, the film is as elegant as it is harrowing. John Hurt, unrecognizable beneath a masterful coat of prosthetics, brings a dignity and attentiveness to Merrick that’s deeply affecting. Anthony Hopkins gives what I consider to be among his absolute finest performances as Treves, carrying that weary face that, however guarded or reserved, seems never at ease but rather conveys the character’s mounting feeling that he may be just as guilty of exploitation as Merrick’s previous “proprietor.”
Blue Velvet (86), which I wrote about the last time Metro screened it, is nothing less than Lynch’s most eloquent synthesis of Edward Hopper and Francis Bacon, an unforgettable vision of the hidden darkness and madness in postcard America, a small town noir seething with desire, degradation, beauty, obsession, and the loss of innocence. (If you’ve never seen it: SEE THIS MOVIE. If you’ve already seen it: SEE THIS MOVIE.) It also features the best ensemble cast Lynch has ever assembled, one of whom, Kyle MacLachlan, would go on to be the star of Twin Peaks (90-91), Lynch’s tremendously successful foray into television –which leads us to the last film in Metro’s quartet.
There’s a section in the superb book Lynch on Lynch where Lynch explains to interviewer Chris Rodley his mind-set post-Twin Peaks. “At the end of the series, I felt sad. I couldn’t get myself to leave the world of Twin Peaks. I was in love with the character of Laura Palmer and her contradictions: radiant on the surface but dying inside. I wanted to see her live, move and talk.”
This longing to resurrect the dead in a tender embrace, this sort of artistic necrophilia if you will, permeates and, some would say, plagues Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (92). It is at once a tormented, death-haunted, funereal thing and an otherwise straightforward, linear story of sexual abuse escalating to filicide that is continually subverted by wildly eccentric digressions and fragments of minutia left over from a complicated and much beloved television series. Somehow, for all its problems it’s also finally tremendously moving.
An extensive prequel, which itself has a rather amusing prelude that consumes the first half-hour, Fire Walk With Me would, admittedly, be the last film I’d ever tell a Lynch neophyte to see. Its heroine, Laura Palmer, whose death kicked off the series, is most often in a state of agitation if not hysteria, a precariously static emotional plateau that does no favours for actress Sheryl Lee. Meanwhile, the rest of the cast –conspicuously disaffected rural folk, pouty 28-year-old teens, the hoser clientele of an extravagantly art directed bar owned by a salacious French Canadian– is so uniformly quirky that the more inspired and significant oddities find it difficult to stand-out. The film also ranks as the unholiest collaboration between Lynch and regular composer Angelo Badalamenti, whose score is by far the most gratingly soapiest of a distinctly soapy body of work.
Yet there are moments of absolute terror and palpable discovery in Fire Walk With Me, as well as a number of ingenious set pieces, and more than a hint of the grasping in the darkness for narrative cohesion that made elements of Inland Empire so electrifying. It’s the most frustrating work from a visionary and enduring filmmaker, but its visionary nonetheless.