“Look at me and tell me if you’ve known me before…”

An Auteurist Approach to David Lynch

Since its inception the notion of an “auteur theory” has been a contentious one. More than just a framework for interpreting film it has extended to a framework for interpreting directors themselves. By examining the body of a directors’ work we can glean insight into their motivations, perspective, and understanding of people and the world that they inhabit. David Lynch is a man who has a very particular, strange and often frightening view of the world which he is not afraid of depicting in his films. This essay will examine the works of David Lynch with a particular focus on Lost Highway (Lynch 1997) and Inland Empire (Lynch 2006) (his most recent work to date) and attempt to interpret them with an auteurist approach.

Before we turn our attention to the films of David Lynch we must gain an understanding of what auteurism is. The notion of auteurism began in 1955 when the film jounal Cahiers du Cinema published the article politique des auteurs (Tudor 1973: 121). The central idea was that the director is the true creator and driving creative force of a film (Tudor 1973:122). The intention was to further the cause of cinema as a legitimate art form by bestowing the status of ‘artist’ upon the director. There has been much conjecture over what exactly constitutes auteurism and the extent of it’s usefulness. For the purposes of this essay, we shall say that the usefulness of auteurism is found when we view a single film from a director in the context of that director’s body of work, rather than in relation to the works of other directors. As Tudor (1973:130) points out, it is counterproductive to tout a director as a auteur and then use it as a pedestal on which to place all of their works, regardless of quality, in order to comment distainfully about the works of other directors. That is to say, Hitchcock’s worst film is not automatically better than Micheal Bay’s best film, just because Hitchcock is considered an auteur (Tudor 1973:123). Instead we should examine the canon of a director’s work to try and gain an understanding of how they see the world and the people who inhabit it, with all of their foibles and glories (Cadbury & Poague 1982:160-161). It is in this sense that we shall be viewing the films of David Lynch.

In Lynch’s first feature, Eraserhead (Lynch 1977), we are presented with a stark, frightening and dystopian view of the world that would prevail amongst all of Lynch’s future works. In the case of Eraserhead the main character, Henry, lives in a bleak, industrial wasteland and spends much of the film in the claustrophobic confines of his one room apartment with his wife and hideously deformed child. In Blue Velvet (Lynch 1986)we are confronted with a world of murder, perversion and corruption, lying just beneath the surface of an idllyic, suburban American town. This is similar in many ways to the town in Lost Highway that Pete inhabits, which at face value is an ordinary town in middle America. We soon find, however, that the town is effectively run by the psychotic maniac, Mr. Eddy who mirrors Frank, the psychotic, perverted gangster from Blue Velvet. This dystopian element is most thouroughly explored, however, in Lynch’s now discontinued television series, Twin Peaks (Lynch 1990) in which an intrepid FBI agent comes to the town of Twin Peaks to solve the murder of teenager Laura Palmer. Here he finds a town which presents a pleasant, sunny facade but which has a disturbing underbelly of wife-beaters, pimps and corporate thugs all of whom seem to answer to a backwards talking midget in a room lined with red curtains (another Lynch tradmark as seen in Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive [Lynch 2001] and Blue Velvet to name a few). This all leads to the very bleak, pessimistic picture of the world that we are consistantly shown in the works of David Lynch.

Implicitly tied to the physical reality of Lynch’s films are the people who inhabit it. As alluded to above, there is invairably a ‘villian’ in Lynch’s films (such as Mr. Eddy in Lost Highway, Frank in Blue Velvet and even the shady studio executives in both Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire) and even the characters who we would most remotely associate with being a hero or protagonist in Lynch films are often far from perfect or functional human beings. In Eraserhead Henry is an emotionally removed recluse who all but destroys his family from sheer indifference and incompetence. Lost Highway (Lynch 1997) and Blue Velvet both have leading male roles who, while basically good people, are oblivious all-american boys who surround themselves with various women who look, act, dress and talk in the same fashion and who’s only purpose seems to be one of benign eroticism. In Mulholland Drive, the female lead, Betty, is at best a girl too naïve for her own good and at worst a girl who’s lost all touch with reality, oblivious to how demented her behaviour really is. It is not, however, this quality of placing flawed characters in leading roles that is particularly distinctive about Lynch’s films, rather it is the fact that often these characters shift and switch between different personas, people and worlds that is truly distinctive.

When first encounted this shifting and phasing of characters is abrupt and often disorienting but, when examined closely, this element of Lynch’s films often gives us interesting insights into how he feels about these characters and the world they inhabit, that at first often appears arbitrary. Lynch has an almost obsessive preoccupation with dreams, nightmares, hallucinations and character perspective. Often when a character or the world around them changes dramatically this a cue that the character’s state of consciousness has undergone some kind of massive shift and we, the audience, are right there with them, along for the ride. Lynch doesn’t give us the usual cues that we’re entering a flashback or a dream sequence. There’s no misty condensation punctuated by the sound of windchimes to inform us that something odd is occuring with the internal timeline of the film. Like the character experiencing it we are taken with a straight cut from reality to fantasy, from waking life to nightmare and regular existence to unadulterated delusion. Although far from conventional, Lynch often gives hints that what he is presenting or about to present to us is not a strictly realist depiction of the world, but he does so in a more veiled fashion than many other directors. Fine examples of this exist in all of Lynch’s films, but for the sake of brevity we shall only explore a few key examples.

Early in Lost Highway the main character, Fred Madison, tells a police detective that he doesn’t own a video camera because he doesn’t like video cameras. When asked why he responds ‘I like to remember things my own way … how I remember them. Not necessarily the way they happened’ (Lynch 1997). This is almost the quintessenial David Lynch line, in Lynch’s films we will rarely see things simply ‘as they happened’, everything will be coloured by perception (often the perception of both the characters and Lynch himself). In the case of Lost Highway, the video camera scene is an excellent example of Lynch’s preferred method of foreshadowing. As the film progresses, Fred murders his wife, is arrested and is put on death row. During his time on death row Fred disappears in his cell and is replaced by a young man named Pete. Pete is returned home where he lives an idyllic existence in suburban America. In the end we see Fred driving madly down a highway, screaming, as stark, blue elctricity streaks through the interior of his car. Taken at face value this film would appear to be one about a man who murders his wife and disappears from the face of the earth. However, if we take the clue from earlier in the film that Fred likes to remember things ‘his way’ and not nessiarily how things ‘really happened’ perhaps there’s a deceptively linear narrative lurking beaneath the facade of insanity. What if after the trauma of murdering his wife and being sentenced to death Fred entered a delusional fantasy in which he was young again, living in an idyllic suburban world and surrounded by beautiful women who gladly have sex with him? In the final scenes we see Fred driving down the lost highway, unable to cling to his fantasy any longer as thousands of volts of electricity surging through his body and both his real and imagined lives come to an end.

When talking about the films of David Lynch, however, we cannot neglect to examine in some detail his most recent feature length film, Inland Empire. If we are to examine any of Lynch’s works using the aueurist framework we set out earlier there is no better display of Lynch’s attitude to both the world around him and the people who inhabit it than Inland Empire. A pessimistic, dystopian picture of America, literal depictions of the characters dreams, nightmares and psyches and frequent metamorphoses in which one character becomes another (and often switches back and forth without warning). As Emerson (2007) points out, Inland Empire is the culmination of Lynch’s career and feels very much like the film he’s been trying to make ever since Eraserhead. The film is, at its heart, a brutal examination of Hollywood and the way in which film, actor and audience relate to one another. Inland Empire is essentially the story of a young actress, Nikki Grace, who lands a role in a film about a couple who enter into a sordid love affair. The young actress and the male lead, Devon Berk, enter into a sordid love affair of their own and their lives come to so closely resemble that of the characters they play that not only does the audience become confused, but they themselves lose track of what is screenplay and what is reality. At one point whilst speaking intensely with Devon about her husband knowing about their affair, Nikki laughs and yells ‘Goddamn! That sounds like dialogue from our script!’. At this point we hear the director’s voice yelling ‘cut!’ and it’s revealed that what Nikki said was indeed reading dialogue from the script. Not only are the characters of the film so similar to the characters they play that it’s confusing for the audience, it’s confusing for the characters themselves. To complicate things further we also see Nikki’s grasp of reality slip further and, as she sinks deeper into her subconsious we see her as a miserable housewife, a violent psychopath and a prostitute. Each of these personas is played by the same woman who pointedly asks (in various accents) ‘Look at me and tell me if you’ve known me before’, daring us to draw comparisons to not only this collection of characters but (in a broader context) to Lynch’s canon as a whole.

Naturally we have no idea precisely how these stories relate to one another. Is Nikki real and the violent psychopath a fantasy in which she answers to no man or is Nikki a fantasy of the psychopath, prostitute or housewife who have aspirations of a life beyond poverty and crime? To confound us further the film is also punctated by a disjointedly terrifying mock sitcom starring rabbits which appears to be watched by an audiece who seem to deliberately laugh at the most inappropriate times. This is of course, all part of Lynch’s game. If there is one thing that can be uniformly said of the works of David Lynch it’s that they’re infuriatingly difficult to develop a concrete understanding about. In his review of Inland Empire, Jim Emerson (2007) comments that even when the film has left the screen, it hasn’t left you. It will stay with you, bouncing about in your mind as you desperately try to understand what it is that Lynch was trying to accomplish and by letting the film do that to you, it’s quite likely that Lynch has accomplished precisely what he set out to do.

To conclude let us review what we can say about David Lynch as a auteur, within the framework we set out at the beginning of the essay. Our aim was to discover what we could glean about the creative vision of Lynch by examining his films in relation to his whole body of work. In doing this we were looking for common stylistic and thematic trends which would give us an idea of how Lynch sees the world and the people within in, with all of their hopes and dreams as well as trials and triumphs. It seems that Lynch constistently produces a cynical picture of an America frought with corruption and moral decay. The people who inhabit his films drift freely between fantasy, reality, dreams and nightmares and the audience is swept along with them, often with no warning. The works of David Lynch present us with a cinematic Rubik’s Cube where the fun is not in the achievement of solving the puzzle quickly and then discarding it. Rather the enjoyment is derived from sporadic and infuriatingly difficult insights which slowly move you closer and closer to the end and, like a Rubik’s Cube, chances are most Lynch films would find themselves abandoned on a shelf after hours of frustrating attempts at solving them. There is no doubt that David Lynch is an auteur in the truest sense, with very clear ideas about the world and a definate agenda to spread those ideas in an opaque and obscure fashion. Their exact nature, sadly, will most likely be buried with Lynch who seems in no great hurry to shed light on the subject.

Works Cited

  • “Blue Velvet”. Dir. David Lynch. Perf. Kyle MacLachlan and Dennis Hopper. De Laurentiis Entertainment Group, 1983.
  • Cadbury, William and Poague, Leland (1982) Film Criticism: A Counter Threory. Iowa: The Iowa State University Press.
  • Emerson, Jim (2007) “Inland Empire”. rogerebert.com. 26 January 2007. 29 October 2007.
  • http://rogerebert.suntimes.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article? AID=/20070125/REVIEWS/701250301/1023&template=printart
  • “Eraserhead”. Dir. David Lynch. Perf. Jack Nance and Charlotte Stewert. American Film Institute (AFI), 1977.
  • “Inland Empire”. Dir. David Lynch. Perf. Laura Dern and Justin Theroux. Studio Canal, 2006.
  • “Lost Highway”. Dir. David Lynch. Perf. Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette. October Films, 1997.
  • “Mulholland Drive”. Dir. David Lynch. Perf. Naomi Watts and Justin Theroux. Les Films Alain Sarde, 2001.
  • Tudor, Andrew (1973) Theories of film. New York: The Viking Press.
  • “Twin Peaks”. Dir. David Lynch. Perf. Kyle MacLachlan and Michael Ontkean. Lynch\Frost Productions, 1990.
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    ~ by Morgan on October 4, 2008.

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