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Lynch, David

Entry updated 27 November 2023. Tagged: Film, People.

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(1946-    ) US filmmaker, actor, artist and musician whose work has extended Surrealism into mainstream Cinema and Television. Lynch's films tend to examine the uneasy truce between rationality and the unconscious mind by revealing how intimations of Sex, Identity and death make themselves felt in modern American communities. The term Lynchian has been defined by David Foster Wallace as referring to "a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former's containment within the latter."

After studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts and becoming committed to an idea of "the art life" derived from Robert Henri's book The Art Spirit (1923), Lynch made a number of short films before receiving a grant from the American Film Institute to make Eraserhead (1977), in which a man's wife gives birth to a deformed infant in a post-industrial Dystopia. Lynch's films already featured characters whose intensity of Inner Space opened up dimensions of Horror or exultation in their surroundings. Eraserhead's success on the midnight movie circuit in the US persuaded producer Mel Brooks to offer Lynch the chance to direct The Elephant Man (1980), based in part on Sir Frederick Treves's memoir The Elephant Man and Other Reminiscences (1923). Shot mainly in London, the film was a difficult experience for Lynch but was nominated for eight Academy Awards and won three British Academy of Film and Television Arts (BAFTA) awards.

Lynch struggled to find financial backing for his script for "Ronnie Rocket", a surreal fable set in an inner-city Zone where Heroes and Villains struggle over the provision of electricity, and after turning down an offer from George Lucas to direct Star Wars: Episode VI – Return of the Jedi (1983) signed on with father-and-daughter film producers Dino and Raffaella De Laurentiis to make Dune (1984), based on Dune (fixup 1965) by Frank Herbert. Previous attempts to adapt Herbert's novel by Alejandro Jodorowsky and Ridley Scott had faltered and a screenplay written by Frank Herbert for Dino De Laurentiis was considered too long. Lynch jettisoned much of the narrative complexity of Herbert's novel and added scenes that matched his own vision of the book as a quest for spiritual enlightenment. Dune emerged first as a five-hour rough-cut and then as a three-hour picture which Dino De Laurentiis insisted be reduced to two hours and seventeen minutes in order to preserve the commercial schedule of the cinemas showing the film. Scenes were dropped, sequences rearranged and voice-overs added to explain the elisions. Lynch said in Room to Dream (2018), an autobiography co-written with Kristine McKenna, that he felt he had lost control of the film before getting to the editing suite and later came to realize that his facility as a director was for the depiction of interior space rather than for the grand sweep of planetary battles over Politics and Religion. Frank Herbert and Harlan Ellison were among the film's few fans and its poor critical reception meant that plans to develop Dune into a trilogy were abandoned.

Personal relations between Lynch and Dino De Laurentiis remained cordial despite their creative differences over Dune and they agreed a deal whereby Lynch would accept a much smaller wage in exchange for retaining final cut on Blue Velvet (1986), a film which many consider to be Lynch's masterpiece. Erotic obsession leads a teenager into the violent underbelly of a neighbourhood whose patina of happiness obscures more troubling forces. Actor Dennis Hopper (1936-2010) said Blue Velvet was about "American schizophrenia". Lynch then made The Cowboy and the Frenchman (1988) for French Television before moving on to the television show for which he is most famous, Twin Peaks (1990-91), developed and co-written with Mark Frost. The dramatic beats of soap opera and the police procedural are merged with scenes of hypnotic strangeness set in the psychic penumbra of an American town on the Canadian border. The show's success gave rise to all manner of popular culture spin-offs, including the Tie-in novel The Secret Diary of Laura Palmer (1990) by Jennifer Lynch, but increasing network interference and Lynch and Frost's commitment to other projects meant that many felt the show lost its creative focus during its long second season.

An adaptation of Wild at Heart: The Story of Sailor and Lula (1990) by Barry Gifford had already been in the works before Twin Peaks went into production and Lynch interspersed his commitments to the filming of Twin Peaks with those he had to Wild at Heart (1990), a fire-themed neo-noir which won the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. By the time he released the feature-film prequel Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) however, something of a critical backlash had begun against Lynch's work and many found Fire Walk With Me's incessantly dark portrayal of incest and murder harder to accept than Twin Peaks's offbeat eccentricity. Lynch continued with art projects and with commercials and television, including two pilot episodes of Hotel Room (1993) for HBO, before moving onto the feature film Lost Highway (1997), in which a jazz saxophonist in the grip of a form of Amnesia known as psychogenic fugue protects himself from the moral consequences of murder by persuading himself he has undergone an Identity Transfer.

Lost Highway marked the point at which Lynch began to move away from the creative compromises that make movies marketable and into his own niche. The lead character in Lost Highway is played by two different actors and the actor playing his wife depicts another character who many viewers found difficult to distinguish from the first. Lynch's fascination with Doppelgangers, secret selves and the hinterlands of Cities had become emblems of his style by this point but his public insistence that his plots made perfect sense combined with his refusal to explain any part of them tended to baffle producers and cinema-goers alike. Lynch's concern with the ebbing away of the kind of American Pastoral life that had formed him is plainer in The Straight Story (1999), co-written by then-wife and editor Mary Sweeney, in which two estranged brothers at the end of their lives reunite. French money, primarily through Canal Plus, became vital to the financing of Lynch's movies and it was this, together with initial investment from ABC and Disney (see The Walt Disney Company), that made it possible to turn Mulholland Drive (2001) into a film. Originally intended as a television pilot, and later worked-up into a feature with the addition of extra footage after ABC and Disney declined to pick it up, the film focuses through a woozy and delirious thematic logic on a starlet's descent into anger, jealousy and despair. Lynch's interest in the hidden side of Hollywood Icons such as Marilyn Monroe (1926-1962) is on display, as is his continuing preoccupation with the psychogeography of Los Angeles and Southern California.

Similar themes are evident in Inland Empire (2006), sometimes capitalized as INLAND EMPIRE, in which a haunted film alters the psychic territory of those connected with its Hollywood remake. The three-hour film first began to take shape when Lynch wrote a monologue for neighbour Laura Dern and grew exponentially with the addition of improvised scenes and extra footage, including from the short film Rabbits (2002), and with input from new production partnerships Lynch had formed in Poland. Choppy, piecemeal and occasionally mesmerizing, Inland Empire makes for a demanding watch and very few people went to the cinema to see it. Frustrated with the behind-the-scenes negotiations of film and television, Lynch began to focus on short films and fine art and on his interest in Transcendental Meditation, described in Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity (2006). Lynch's script for "Antelope Don't Run No More", which extended motifs from Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire into a story of a musician amongst Aliens and talking animals [see The Encyclopedia of Fantasy under links below], did not find financial backing, and it was not until Lynch recombined with Mark Frost and entered into discussions with Showtime over a return to the setting of Twin Peaks that Lynch found himself in a position to produce television on his own terms. The project collapsed when Showtime and Lynch could not agree on a per-episode budget for Twin Peaks: The Return (2017) and only again became viable when Showtime agreed to Lynch's stipulation that set painters, lighting machines and special effects technicians be on-set every day of the shoot, effectively turning it into a feature film production. Critics praised the scale and ambition of Twin Peaks: The Return, with a nuclear Weapon detonation in episode eight taking many by surprise, but it was Lynch's ability to connect human intimacy to the ferocity and strangeness of our shared existence that viewers found most heartening.

If classical-era Surrealism (from 1923 to around 1950) hoped to usurp the societal structures that led irrevocably to War and Disaster, Lynch seems to have succeeded in broadening the appeal of surrealist techniques of juxtaposition and shock by moving them beyond the symbols of Freudian Psychology and into everyday life: in Lynch's world, everyone is to some degree a deviant, the most depraved person capable of tenderness, a functioning society a matter of individuals adopting an honest appraisal of the origin and impact of their own behaviour. It is, in short, a religious sensibility. Entropy suffuses everything but so does joy. Where this approach did not much suit the Agonism of Frank Herbert's depiction of the Fremen on Arrakis or the clean and easy outcomes of the more popular forms of Crime drama, it does succeed in conveying some of the unnerving mystery of being alive. Whether through the delusions of lust, the revelations of suffering or a wholesale explanatory collapse in a character's understanding of reality, Lynch's films offer an interpretation of the human predicament that it as alluring as it is disturbing. Everything is a question of how you look at it. [MD]

David Keith Lynch

born Missoula, Montana: 20 January 1946

about the filmmaker


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