The cinema of David Lynch is a Pandora’s box of desires and beguiling images. Forged through his first feature Eraserhead (which has been given the Criterion treatment in a Collection Blu-ray on Monday, the 19th of October), the stark black and white images of the feature merge with the ominous sound design to create an enchantingly nightmarish tone – one that Lynch has come to be defined by. The filmmaker’s work outside the medium in sculpting, literature and music too suffices itself into his films as rich tapestries of complex human emotions and abstract expressions.
Throughout Lynch’s filmography there are highly surreal moments that transcend simply being defined in the horror or thriller genre. These scenes and images rest more specifically in the surrealist movement of the 1920s, later conjured into cinema by Louis Buñuel’s Un chien andalou. Like the intoxicating images of the surrealist artists, Lynch’s cinema is continuously exploring the connections that define human interaction and feeling. Whether it is the ominous malevolent forces in Lost Highway or Blue Velvet’s sadistic observations on white-picket-fence middle America, David Lynch uses his unparalleled visual style to create images that will remain in the viewer’s consciousness and dreams.
1. Mulholland Drive – Lone Cowboy
One of David Lynch’s most notable films amongst cinephiles, Mulholland Drive is grounded by two key central performances from Naomi Watts and Laura Harring. Their intimate relationship forges the central tension of the film but it is in the form of the lone cowboy that creates a pivotal moment in its ominous collective tone. Upon his arrival to a ranch outside of LA’s suburbs, the side character of Adam Kesher (Justin Theroux) is forced to meet a lone cowboy adorning a white hat and baggy brown jacket. The reasoning behind his visit is to force him to cast a young girl in a role by powers above him.
Shot by cinematographer Peter Deming in a low key lighting, the scene possesses a single light from above the imbues the dialogue between the two men with an off-kilter tonal element. Their faces, and in particular the cowboys become almost white under this lighting thus rendering their skin in a ghostly fashion. Portrayed by a non-professional actor, the cowboy himself delivers his menacing threat in a deadpan tone, accompanied by the dark iris. Within the scene, the mystery of who this figure is only makes the threat more ominous and sinister towards Adam. Serving as an embodiment of the film’s vivid imagery, creating a rather peculiar reflection on the nature of film-making and creativity in Hollywood, the lone cowboy is a figure that represents all of Lynch’s most potent surrealist images.
2. Eraserhead – Oh, You Are Sick!
Sitting alongside The Elephant Man as the only two films to be shot in black and white by Lynch, Eraserhead’s visual and audio landscape is filled with some of the most surreal intricate work created by the artist. A wasteland on all levels, both sight and sound, the world the film is set within is an industry city that seemingly has no end .
Exemplary in one particularly haunting interaction with a seemingly mummified baby, Henry Spencer (Jack Nance), has to care for the infant in his confined room. Designed by Lynch himself, the baby does not resemble that of a human being. It has been rumoured since its release in 1977 that the director created the infant out of a calf’s liver and high quality platinum silicone. Nonetheless, the scene carries with it a foreboding doom that is only further highlighted by how swiftly the infant child comes up with boils and becomes ill.
In the initial moments, Henry simply takes its temperature and in a swiftly edited shot reverse shot, the baby suddenly develops boils and is filmed in a close up to emphasize the grotesque nature of its illness. Foregrounding the film’s key themes of bodily decay and the decay of urban spaces, the close-up image of this sick creature is a twisted one – one that underlies the fragility of life and death in this hellish world.
3. Lost Highway – Mystery Man
Casting another lone figure in a mysterious light as in Mulholland Drive, Lynch in Lost Highway conjures up another unforgettable interaction with a singular presence that stands out as one of his most intense reflections on human interaction.
Occurring at a party where Bill Pullman’s Fred Maison is listening to some jazz tunes accompanied by an alcoholic drink, set against Barry Adamson’s score. Out of the blue a smiling man with ghostly white skin approaches him amongst the crowds. The figure is one with slick black hair and shaved off eyebrows making him a ghastly figure to look, shot by Peter Deming in a medium close up. After some small talk, the mysterious man suddenly states to Fred that he is currently in his home. The absurd remark seems strange given his presence but it is all the more disconcerting when the man passes a phone to Fred and the mysterious man too speaks from the phone, without saying anything in person.
The duality of the figures is also extended in the double invasion of Fred’s personal space at the party and within his own home. Upon the mysterious man speaking through the phone, Angelo Badalamenti’s ambient score subtly plays underneath the whole scene, thus creating an agitated mood. The inherent fear held by Fred is made palpable in the shift from the cinematographer Deming to shoot the white skin of the man in a tight close up, furthered in his cunning smile. Lynch’s creative presence is felt in the intricate color grading changes as the music fades down when the mysterious man walks up, underlying the bleak presence that brought the figure.
These lone figures, to Lynch, represent an underlying threat to normal domesticated life. His surreal images slowly creep in and out of the seemingly everyday to leave their mark on the real world and appear conjured from a much more sinister dreamlike world.
Eraserhead comes to the Criterion Collection on Blu-ray on the 19th of October – you can win a copy here.