Under the Influence: David Lynch

david lynch
Latest posts by James Gallagher (see all)

Following on from Michael Prescott’s look at the influence of Woody Allen and Carl Eden’s look at modern films that could be considered “Kubrickian”, this week I shall examine the influence of/pen a love-letter to director, writer, musician and all-round weirdo/legend, David Lynch.

I love David Lynch. I’m like the Annie Wilkes to his Paul Sheldon, albeit without the typewriter, the pig and the hobbling. Not only have I seen all of his films countless times (except Dune; I’ve only ever seen that twice because no-one likes it, not even David Lynch) but I also rewatch Twin Peaks so often that “The Life and Times of Special Agent Dale Cooper” is totally going to be my specialist subject if I ever appear on Mastermind.  My YouTube viewing history is full of interviews with/documentaries about Mr Lynch and for my money he’s absolutely the greatest film director alive today. Nobody can quite get under your skin like he can and his films – with their deft combination of dark humour, horror and surrealism – are invariably fascinating, thrilling and quite gloriously morbid.

In order to understand his appeal we must first look at the people by whom Lynch himself has been influenced. Though he is known for his startling originality the themes and ideas that run through Lynch’s filmography can often be found in the experimental cinema of people such as Luis Bunuel and Maya Deren, as well as in the more mainstream cinema of people like Wilder, Kubrick and Polanski. Lost Highway, for example, expands on the themes established in Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon to tell a truly disturbing story, while Inland Empire – which also contains elements of Meshes… – is the cinematic equivalent of a three-hour nightmare… or a 255-minute nightmare if you also watch the wonderfully titled add-on More Things that HappenedBlue Velvet combines the neo-noir sensibilities of Chinatown with the sexual politics of a classic Hitchcockian mystery while Mulholland Dr. takes the dark comic cynicism of Sunset Boulevard and mixes it in with some Lynch-approved surrealism to explore the divide between fantasy and reality in Hollywood and beyond.

Almost all of Lynch’s films – even the more “normal” ones like The Elephant Man and The Straight Story – explore complex themes that require a near-perfect grasp of direction and writing, which is why it is often the films that attempt to imitate Lynch for which I reserve the most scorn. I often find them cheap, derivative and uninspiring because nobody can “do Lynch” like the man himself. The three examples below, however, are just some of the more competent efforts that have adopted and adapted his style and ideas to suit their own story:

1. Kill List

I was initially tempted to select Wheatley’s more recent film, A Field in England, but of the two I think it is Kill List (a.k.a professional film critic Dane Bowers’ favourite film…) that is the more successfully Lynchian. One part crime thriller, one part horror film and all parts brainfuck, Kill List is a classic example of a film that uses its first two acts to create a daunting air of mystery before turning absolutely everything upside down in the final act. Kill List‘s dark outlook on life is reminiscent of much of Lynch’s filmography; it is a film devoid of joy that uses black humour and the tropes of a British thriller to explore the shameless, murky depths of humanity. With its visceral style and uncertain tone it almost feels like a peculiar amalgamation of Mulholland Dr. and Lost Highway, with elements of The Wicker Man thrown in for good measure.

Kill List‘s focus is on the collapse of morality in modern-day Britain and explores the idea that man is willing to go to any lengths to survive. Like Mulholland Dr., it is both a film that toys with the idea that our lives are directed and controlled by powerful, unseen forces and a film that asks its audience to explore the breach between fantasy and reality. Tonally the film’s mysteriousness and overpowering pessimism is reminiscent of Lost Highway, as is its grand combination of horror and drama. Like much of Lynch’s later filmography, Kill List is gritty and its dark imagery is unrelenting. It is a film that places the importance of its message above the coherence of its story and one that has a tendency to play out like a very bad dream. Though it isn’t as tight as a Lynch film, Kill List utilises Lynchian tropes to their full effect and does a stellar job of getting inside its audience’s head.

2. American Beauty

This might seem like a strange choice but “look closer”, as the film’s tagline suggests, and you’ll find that American Beauty is much more Lynchian than it might initially seem. It is primarily a film about the secret and dangerous underbelly of surburbia, in which the gloss of the American Dream is slowly scraped away and in which the facade of an upper-middle class family is systematically demolished until all that is left is death and misery. The similarities to Blue Velvet – a film that is built on the idea that small-town America might appear pleasant but is in fact rotten to the core – are quite obvious. The well-kept gardens, the wealth and the friendly neighbourly interaction in both of these films work to conceal the fact that below the surface a real darkness is brewing.

Like Blue Velvet, it is also a film rich in floral imagery. The rose petals that conceal Angela’s ultimately deadly sexuality in American Beauty bare a powerful resemblance to the roses at the start of Blue Velvet that conceal the insects below; insects that signify the stark difference between the facade and the reality of small-town America. In both films internal danger is concealed by external beauty and it is sexual desire that triggers the initial downfall of both Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle McLachlan) and Lester Burnham (Kevin Spacey) respectively. Furthermore, each film’s score is at times reminiscent of a lullaby; they’re both quiet, soothing and unassuming. The gorgeous vocals of Isabella Rossellini, and the piercing chords of Thomas Newman and the dancing plastic bag, help to lull the audience into a false sense of calm and security before the dangers that lurk beneath the surface are properly exposed.

3. Berberian Sound Studio

A common theme that runs through Lynch’s more recent films is the darkness within the film industry. Lynch often uses cinema as a feint through which his own nightmares can be explored while also displaying a real distrust of the inner-workings of Hollywood. Berberian Sound Studio, an independent horror film from Peter Strickland, explores the relationship between nightmares and cinema, examining the manner in which life can imitate art and in which the line between fantasy and reality – a very common trope in Lynch’s work (as I’ve already alluded to) – can become blurred. Berberian Sound Studio’s focus is on the Giallo industry in 1970’s Italy and it follows the story of a sound technician called Gilderoy (Toby Jones) whose life is slowly but surely consumed by the intensity of the film he is working on. After the first act the film’s linear narrative structure begins to break down and before long Gilderoy is completely consumed by the vicious nature of both the film and the industry. As his mind and personality become increasingly fragmented, it is all but impossible for the audience to decipher what is real and what, if anything, is a dream.

Though it’s a fantastic film in its own right, Berberian Sound Studio is obviously quite heavily influenced by Lynch’s most impenetrable film to date, Inland Empire. Both films see their main character thrown into an inescapable nightmare that is brought on by a combination of their own dormant darkness and the disturbing history of the respective films that they are working on. Like Inland EmpireBerberian Sound Studio is shrouded in ambiguity; its “open” conclusion is as pessimistic as the ending to the aforementioned Kill List and as baffling as that of Lost Highway. The film combines sharp colours and piercing sounds to crank up the terror, refusing to show all that much and relying heavily on the power of the audience’s imagination. It is a film that requires its audience to provide their own interpretation of what has happened and a film that refuses to pander to simplicity.

 

Of course, Lynch’s influence is absolutely littered through much of Hollywood so it’s little surprise that he remains one of the most critically acclaimed and academically revered directors working today. The three films above are just a few of the many that owe a huge debt to David Lynch and his work. The majority of post-70s “body-horror” is at least partly influenced by Eraserhead while a huge amount of contemporary television simply wouldn’t exist without Twin Peaks. Though he may never make another feature film again, you can be sure of one thing; “Lynchian” ideas will continue to influence writers and directors for decades to comeI just live in hope that the good man will one day abandon his fruitless (slash downright awful…) music career, reunite with the wonderful Laura Dern, and treat us to another cinematic masterpiece on a par with Blue Velvet, Mulholland Dr. and Lost Highway.

About James Gallagher

James is a film addict, a bitter misanthrope and a graduate from the University of Sheffield. Raised in Birkenhead, he is like a (very) poor man's Paul O'Grady. He has lots of opinions – almost all of which are wrong – and can normally be found reading, writing and drinking whisky. @theugliestfraud