Watching Nightmares: The Film Style of David Lynch

Watching Nightmares: The Film Style of David Lynch

Daniel Kovalcik

Photos: Front page, Eraserhead (1977). Above, Mulholland Drive (2001).

Reading a book by Franz Kafka disturbs me in the same way as watching a movie by David Lynch does: my skull seems to fill with a nest of crawling spiders that it takes me days to purge. Both artist’s styles spin us into an existential vertigo of horror and doubt. The disturbing loss of individual control serves as the most disturbing element of both Kafka’s The Trial and Lynch’s Inland Empire. Kafka’s Metamorphosis is a freakish parody of reality that I’d argue is in many ways akin to Lynch’s Blue Velvet.  My point is not to imply that Lynch has pick-pocketed Kafka’s artistic style, but rather that Kafka and Lynch do horror in much the same way. Understanding the horror of Kafka helps illustrate the horror of Lynch; understanding the value of Kafka helps illuminate the value of Lynch.

Nearly everything about Lynch’s films defies the prototypical horror flick, and yet there is something deeply horrifying about his work. Unlike most horror directors, Lynch’s most powerful tools of fear are not supernatural predators (Jason, Freddie Kruger, the clown from It) or psychotic serial killers (Hannibal Lector, Jigsaw, Norman Bates). Instead, what makes his films so disturbing is that they exist in worlds very similar to ours but that are run by dream-logic. His films don’t just give us nightmares; they are nightmares.

But his films are also riddles. Lynch’s first feature film, Eraserhead (1977), is a deeply symbolic labyrinth stocked with dancing chickens, maniacal moon men, and seemingly very little sense. He developed this initial complexity in his later works such as Lost Highway (1997) and Fire Walk with Me (1992)And his latest works, Mulholland Drive (2001) and Inland Empire (2006) are arguably two of the most bedeviling, mentally tortuous film experiences to be had. In fact, Lynch has brought the complexity of his style to such great heights that only a few very patient Lynch fanatics can truly comprehend and appreciate the films without the help of an Internet film analysis.  (And I am not one of those fanatics.)

As Lynch’s style has evolved it has become more and more obscure. It can be argued – and it might very well be true – that Lynch builds his complexity to a fault. His narratives have become extremely disorienting, the characters at times seem flat or emotionally vacant (Nikki’s character in the opening scenes of Inland Empire, for example), and the internal logic of the films appears to decay. In the works of other filmmakers, these are often indicators of incompetence; but for Lynch it’s exactly the opposite. His narratives are purposefully disorienting, his characters are purposefully flat, his logic decays – yes – but it decays logically. Everything in a Lynch film is carefully crafted and has a distinct point to make. Identifying that point, however, is easier said than done.

For those that would like to experience Mulholland Drive without any hints (which is what Lynch intended) skip the next two paragraphs, they contain a crucial spoiler.

The first third or so of Mulholland Drive, one of Lynch’s most critically acclaimed films, serves as an excellent example of Lynch’s complex film style at work. Betty, the protagonist, arrives in LA looking to become a film star. Betty is cheery.  Very cheery. Too cheery. For a good while it isn’t clear whether Naomi Watts is butchering the role or Lynch has lost his sense of his movie-making style. It’s neither. As Betty begins to meet and interact with other characters it becomes all too clear that something is intentionally amiss. Nearly everyone is cheery.  Nearly everyone seems plastic and artificial. They all exist within the “uncanny valley”: like robots that are almost human, but not quite.

What’s really going on with the saccharine naivety and cheer is that Lynch is nudging us in the rib and telling us that this is not reality. This is a dream. I’d say about sixty or seventy percent of Mulholland Drive takes place in Betty’s (Diane’s) dream. For the majority of the film we are seeing the wrong version of reality. It’s only in the last fourth of the movie that we re-enter our waking world. However, Lynch doesn’t give us a wavy screen or a blurry awakening to make the transition obvious. Instead, it’s easy to stumble during the jump from dream to reality (as I first did) and assume that the film has become overly convoluted and has lost its internal logic. This has led some film critics like Roger Ebert to conclude, “There is no explanation.  There may not even be a mystery.” But the movie does have an explanation, and it is in fact a mystery.

I like to think that Lynch is creating double mysteries. There is the mystery within the film itself that the characters are attempting to solve and uncover.  But then there is also the mystery for the viewer, which is to uncover what that internal mystery is. The later is perhaps hardest of the two because many of Lynch’s films have one foot in a dream landscape and the other in reality. Distinguishing the two is rarely an easy thing to do.

Perhaps Lynch is over-complicating. Perhaps he’s biting off more than he can chew and developing the complexity of his films to a point that’s inconsiderate to the viewer. But that’s not to say the complexity has no point. The nonlinear narratives, the weaving in and out of dreams, the protagonists’ interactions with strangely nightmarish characters – all this works together to create the horror that makes Lynch’s films so disturbing.

By throwing rational characters into the film’s seemingly irrational world, Lynch sends both the characters and the viewers down a dark rabbit hole. Lynch’s films distress us for precisely the same reason as Kafka’s books do: they try to use waking rationality in a world of dreams. In Kafka’s The Trial, K., the protagonist, becomes lost in the halls of a paralytic legal system that functions on the logic of nightmares rather than reality. Patience gets K. nothing, argument gets him less; he does not know his crime nor even the charge against him. His rational currency has no value in Kafka’s lunatic world, and neither would it have any in Lynch’s.

The characters that appear in Lynch’s films are faced with the same impossible challenges as a Kafkaesque protagonist. The actress, Nikki (Inland Empire), doesn’t understand why her world is confusing itself with the world of her scripted character. Betty (Mulholland Drive) struggles to comprehend the dark workings of the Hollywood underground. Even Henry (Eraserhead), a surreal denizen of a surreal neighborhood, is constantly perplexed by the freakish things that happen to him.

We’ve all had dreams in which we try to apply waking logic to the dream’s ridiculous world. It almost never works. The dream’s psychedelic rationality rejects our attempts to dominate it. In much the same way, Lynch’s characters (and his viewers as well) are at the mercy of the dream logic. The characters are incapable of rationalizing it or dominating the riddle until they wake up. Neither can we until we crack the cryptic Lynch asks of us.

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