David Lynch has arguably been one of the greatest film-maker to come out of America in the last four decades. Love him or loathe him, he is an edge director who has elaborated a distinctive vision of the mythical, wholesome American innocent's encounter with darkness, decay and evil across a range of film and art/media contexts, including not only underground, independent, and blockbuster cinema but also television, painting, photography, animation, and popular music.
Innocence And Degrading Evil
The most famous example of his style are, of course, Blue Velvet, where naive Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) descends into the violent world of sexual perversion and criminality lurking just beneath the surface of bland suburban normality, and its television sibling, Twin Peaks, with MacLachlan as FBI special agent Dale Cooper investigating the brutal murder of Prom Queen Laura Palmer.
But the dark romantic encounter between seemingly idyllic innocence and corrupting evil can also be found, with varying emphases and across different genres, in much of Lynch's body of work, from the low-budget Eraserhead and his first commercial success The Elephant Man, through the flop Dune, to the 1990s movies Wild Heart, Twin Peaks, Lost Highway. The straight story, by contrast, revivifies notions of folksy, middle-American goodness more than any Lynch movie to date. His 2001 movie, Mulholand Dr. is an attack on the artificiality of male-dominated world where everybody has a hidden agenda, and anything that appears to be beautiful or genuine is simply an illusion that will eventually collapse.
A Poet of Weirdness
From an early age, David Lynch claims that:
"I learned that just beneath the surface there's another world, and still different worlds as you dig deeper. I knew it as a kid, but i couldn't find the proof. It was just a kind of feeling. There is goodness in blue skies and flowers, but another force -- a wild pain and decay -- also accompanies everything."
This statement glosses the basis of the Lynchian poetic weirdness, laying equal stress on upholding the idyll's value and on the threatening inevitability of the darker worlds which lie beneath it and may inhabit it or overtake it. Lynch's dark romanticism informs his aesthetic sensibility.
It is well known that he distrusts words and formal leaning, refuses to psychologize or analyze his work because this spoil its mystery, gets his ideas from a process which amounts to a form of guided daydreaming -- apprehending sensory or aural images from the unconscious -- and, whatever state his script is in when he goes to shoot, incorporates chance and accident in the film-making process.
The archetypal Lynch scene possess the quality of dream/nightmare, making the strange familiar, shifting us to an unfamiliar world, or articulating a vision of the strange world, often with terrible and terrifying beauty. Examples include the birth and death sequences of The Elephant Man; Cooper's dream of the dwarf dancing under strobe lights in Twin Peaks; Fred's foreboding meeting with the Mystery Man at the party in Lost Highway; and just about all of Eraserhead.
Drawing on childhood fears and fantasies, his films return repeatedly to parent-child and sibling relations, exploring the ambivalent bonds of love and hate, power and desire which fuel the dynamic of the family and its roles. Eraserhead features Henry Spencer's attempts to cope with the monstrous baby which he has allegedly fathered. The Elephant Man is suffused with John Merrick's fantasies of his beautiful mother and his desire for return to her. Twin Peaks multiplies and plots super-naturalism around the secret of the incest at the heart of the all-American Palmer family.
Blue Velvet, widely regarded as his masterpiece to date is a cruel romantic fairytale with a air of postmodernism. Jeffrey Beaumont is the archetypal Lynch innocent, launched on a quest into dark sexual awakening by the discovery of a severed ear (itself the entrance to another world) and the clue provided by pure all-American girl Sandy that the ear may be linked to exotic nightclub singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rosellini). The movie is famous for its 'primal scene' sequence where Jeffrey, secreted in Dorothy's closet, voyeuristic-ally spies on the sadomasochistic sexual ritual enacted by psychotic hoodlum Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper).
Shocking to many when it was released, the film's perverse sexual violence aroused the wrath of feminists yet caught the 1980s tone for mainstreaming psycho-sexual deviance. It also marked the emergence of allegedly postmodern trends. Lynch's Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive exemplifies the darker and lighter aspects of his vision in turn. Both the movies are a mixture of horror and film noir. The movies power to disturb is undeniable.
Lynch's Contrasting Feature Film
The Straight Story, by contrast, does what it says in its title, narrating the story of self-reliant 70-something Alvin Straight's (Richard Farnsworth) journey from Iowa to Wisconsin to visit his long-lost brother Lyle, who has suffered a stroke, in a remarkably in a straightforward fashion. Although this is the first Lynch film which he has no hand in writing, it provides an occasion to indulge his vision of American wholesomeness unencumbered by the perennial darkness found elsewhere in his work.
This is not to say that it is not eccentric. Alvin's preferred mode of transport , a motor-driven lawnmower (with trailer), is strange to say the least, and the slow-paced travelogue which ensues affords opportunities aplenty to meet up with off-beat people (including a hysterical woman who loves deer but keeps on running them over). At once a celebration of the middle-American landscapes and traditional rural American values -- Alvin is, at heart, a cowboy -- The Straight Story recalls The Elephant Man when Alvin contemplates the indescribable mystery of the stars in the night sky with his daughter rose and, at the close, in deep silence with the brother.
It was a delightful film of profound simplicity, which suggests that Lynch, apart from his encounters with darkness and evil, may have still have a plenty of surprises in store.