Few filmmakers have had as profound an effect on me as director David Lynch. When I was exposed to Twin Peaks during its initial run back in late 1990 my mind was blown out the back of my head by the possibilities of what film and television could be.
For many it was first seeing Star Wars and for other more recent generations it will be their first viewing of Fellowship of the Ring but for me it was the scene where an older Kyle Maclachlan speaks to a backwards talking dwarf in a red room and my life was changed forever.
As a result I have eagerly watched all of David Lynch’s directorial work many times over the years and await each new project eagerly. Sadly he seems to have slowed down somewhat from the productive decades of the 80’s and 90’s and has only directed two movies in the last ten years.
Allow me then dear readers to take you back through the sycamores, back to the dark underneath of the everyday for another tumble down the rabbit hole as we go back over his rich and varied career. As one of cinemas most avant garde and celebrated auteurs, Lynch has always avoided clarifying or explaining the meanings in his imagery and narratives as he prefers the viewer to make up their own mind. This strategy has kept him in the film going public consciousness for over thirty years and his work has been a huge influence on many filmmakers.
David Kenneth Lynch was born in 1946 and grew up in the kind of small all-American town that would later foster his most famous work. During this time Lynch never felt comfortable, always feeling that something sinister was bubbling away just under the surface of the picturesque all American every day surroundings. Lynch’s father was a research scientist for the Forest Service and frequently took little David to work with him and subsequently Lynch would spend a lot of time alone in the woods which would also feed into later work.
Young David’s frequent visits to his grandparents in Brooklyn, New York would juxtapose the tranquillity of this with the loudness of a big city. The fascination with these different areas of his life and the darkness and the light would lead Lynch to eventually decide at age nineteen that he wanted to devote his life to art. A trip to Europe for inspiration didn’t quite work out so Lynch would drift from menial job to job until eventually he enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia.
This was a golden age of creativity for the young painter and there was feeling that they were riding the crest of a wave of artistic expression. During his second year at the academy, Lynch started to experiment with film and this eventually lead to him making the short films The Alphabet (1968) and The Grandmother (1970). The pieces were raw and amateur but had promise and started what would become Lynch’s overriding passion for the next few years.
The Grandmother ended up winning prestigious prizes at film festivals and ended up putting Lynch in touch with the centre for advanced film studies set up by the American Film Institute in Los Angeles. Lynch left Philadelphia for LA and ended up using the AFI’s facilities to develop his projects. Lynch spent most of his first year in LA developing an aborted project known as Gardenback about a couple with a monster growing in their attic. Lynch abandoned this idea when the vision of a man’s head bouncing on the ground and being picked up by child and taken to a pencil factory came to him and this is where the germ for his first full length film would come from.
Eraserhead – A dream of strange and troubling things (1977)
The film was begun on the shoestring budget afforded for a short by the AFI, the screenplay was only 21 pages long at this point. Production stopped and started depending on when Lynch would have to stop, earn some money for his young family and then save enough for the next round of filming. All the sets and props were handmade by Lynch himself and by the time the film was finished it had taken up about 5 years of his life. Many of his friends and family gave their time to the project working for free and the results were worth the effort. Lynch has said recently that Eraserhead is his most spiritual film, growing as it did out of his problems with living in as violent as city as Philadelphia feeling a sense of dread everywhere he went there and of course being a new father.
Eraserhead is a full-blown nightmare placed on celluloid. It doesn’t matter what it all means but clearly it has a lot on its mind. Fear of fatherhood and the rise of industry; is it a metaphor for sexually transmitted diseases? It’s best not to think about these things and just let the film wash over you with its weird atmosphere and arresting imagery. That’s probably a good guide for watching David Lynch’s films overall, don’t try and work it all out whilst you watch just go with it as you would a dream. Eraserhead is like a mission statement for Lynch’s career, he sets down the template for the dream logic that informs most of his films and sets out to both disgust you and make you think.
Upon initial release in 1977 Eraserhead met with some appalling reviews. Over the next few years it went on to gain a cult following being proclaimed by pop culture icons as a magnificent work of cinema. The ‘In Heaven’ song sung by the lady in the radiator went on to be covered by bands as diverse as The Pixies and Bauhaus. Stanley Kubrick also proclaimed the film as one of his favourites and showed it to the cast and crew of The Shining in order to put them into the atmosphere he wanted for his film. Bad taste auteur John Waters would also proclaim his love for the film in interviews whilst promoting his own work.
All of this helped build momentum and keep the film at midnight screenings for years to come. The film is notable for also being his first collaboration with Jack Nance, Charlotte Stewart and Catherine Coulson who he would go on to work with on Twin Peaks. From an eventual budget of $100,000 Eraserhead went on to make money, grossing $7 million dollars. It may not have set the world alight but one thing was for certain; a major new talent had arrived.
The Elephant Man (1980)
After the underground success of Eraserhead, Lynch began his first attempt to get his long cherished dream project Ronnie Rocket off the ground. However it was not an easy sell and as Eraserhead hadn’t exactly made serious money it was the wrong time to pitch such a strange project. During this time Lynch fell in with young up and coming producer Stuart Cornfield who had a link to another producer who had a screenplay by Christopher De Vore and Eric Bergren entitled The Elephant Man.
Impressed by its sensitive handling of such a grotesque subject matter, Cornfield suggested David Lynch as the director of the film, luckily Lynch felt the same way as Cornfield about what he could bring to the project. The script was a slightly fictionalised account of Joseph Carey (John Merrick in the screenplay) who was the most radically deformed person in history during the industrial revolution. Initially the project met with resistance from executives which was strange because the Broadway play of The Elephant Man was enjoying some success at the time.
It probably didn’t help matters that the project was seen as an adaptation of the theatre play, which equates to box office poison, despite the storylines differing in tone and adherence to the facts of the case. Cornfield was working as an associate producer on Mel Brooks film The History of the World part 1, and due to the problems Brooks had with getting The Producers made, he sympathised with Lynch as a talented filmmaker without financing. By page 38 of the screenplay, Brooks knew he had to get The Elephant Man made. A $5 million budget was secured along with a distribution deal and shooting began in October 1979 with a heavily made up John Hurt in the lead role with Anthony Hopkins in the role of Dr Frederick Treves.
Shot in black and white by Freddie Francis, The Elephant Man is gorgeous to look at. At first it may not seem like this is the kind of film that Lynch would make as his follow up to Eraserhead, but many of his early obsessions are present and correct. There is the industrial landscape of Eraserhead, represented here by the London of the industrial age complete with hissing steam and creaking pipes. The opening scene is also fairly haunting for a PG certificate film, seeming to suggest some kind of massacre of a woman by a herd of elephants. There are many of the grotesque characters that make up much of Lynch’s work, not just John Merrick who becomes more and more humanised and sympathetic as the story progresses.Freddie Jones is great as the abusive and nasty piece of work that keeps Merrick as a freak show attraction as is Michael Elphick as a local scoundrel who sees an opportunity to quick cash via Merrick’s new more civilised dwellings.
The film is anchored by two beautiful affecting performances at its core. John Hurt endured six hours of make up to play Merrick and his work is brilliant, he brings a lot of subtlety to the role and earns the sympathy of the audience with ease. A lot of what works about the role has to do with the screenplay, and this gives Hurt a lot of opportunity to shine in his more sensitive and moving scenes. Anthony Hopkins is also great in the role of Frederick Treves, the man who took pity on Merrick and brought him to the attention of the medical community. Hopkins has become something of a self parody in recent years, but his work here is a reminder that he is genuinely a great actor capable of great things. The friendship between Treves and Merrick is beautifully handled and developed as the film progresses and never lapses into sentiment despite being immensely moving.
The Elephant Man received an enthusiastic critical response when it was released. Critics praised the look of the film as well as the performances although there were some that were put out because the film wasn’t as surreal or fantastical as Eraserhead. Although if you look closely there are elements of much of Lynch’s work present in the film. The film ended up being nominated for Best Picture, Best Actor, Art Direction, Costume Design, Best Director, Best Editing, Best Original Score and Best Adapted Screenplay at the Academy Awards. Unfortunately it did not win in any of these categories but did win the BAFTA for Best Film and Best Actor. Due to the black and white film stock the film does not look dated at all and the recently released Blu-Ray is a gorgeous transfer and well worth picking up.