Today I watched Lost Highway and Eraserhead back-to-back. I've now seen each of David Lynch's feature films, which puts me in position to create two lists of the master's movies: most-to-least comprehensible, and least-to-most favourite of mine. How will these two lists correlate..?
David Lynch's Most-to-Least Comprehensible Movies
10. The Straight Story
Lynch's most straightforward film is aptly named, for the eccentric director really does play it straight in this simple but heartwarming tale based on the true story of Alvin Straight, who travelled almost 400 km on a riding lawnmower to visit his sick brother. There's only one moment of Lynchian weirdness to be had, and even that is over in a flash.
Adapted from Frank Herbert's classic SF novel, Lynch's third film proceeds in linear fashion: Paul Atreides battles the corrupt Harkonnens for supremacy over the planet Arrakis, valued for the spice that makes faster-than-light travel possible.
8. The Elephant Man
Lynch's first adaptation of a true story explored the world of Joseph Merrick, a Briton with life-altering deformities. Probably best remembered for John Hurt's strangled cry of "I am not an animal - I am a human being!", The Elephant Man is a relatively simple (for Lynch), sentimental accounting of a difficult story.
7. Blue Velvet
While nothing may be as it seems in the small town of Lumberton, it's not at all difficult to follow this offbeat coming-of-age story once you acclimatize to Lynch's signature foibles.
6. Wild at Heart
A love story with a happy ending - what could be more conventional? Well, leaving aside the over-the-top violence and the appearance of Glinda the Good Witch...
5. Lost Highway
This film seems pretty non-linear until you realize that all Lynch is doing is telling the story of a man driven insane by guilt - from the insane person's point of view.
4. Mulholland Drive
Again, once you realize that everything up until the blue box is a dream, this story of love and regret becomes a lot less oblique - and even more moving.
3. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
This film is a lot easier to understand if you're already familiar with the television show on which it's based; without this background knowledge, the story of Laura Palmer's violent death comes across as a fever dream.
Lynch's first film is a surreal doozy. Having seen it for the first time today, my first impressions are unlikely to be accurate. But if I had to guess, I'd say it's about male fears surrounding reproduction and responsibility and how those fears can unravel the structure of the safe, comfortable universe of the childless bachelor. But in a film where a man's head pops off and gets ground up into pencil erasers, your interpretation is as good as mine...
1. Inland Empire
Along with Eraserhead and Lost Highway, Lynch's last film is one of three I've seen over the course of the last couple of days, and definitely the toughest to interpret. The movie's narrative bounces back and forth temporally and in terms of point-of-view - it's often difficult to tell if a given scene is part of the film's framing narrative, or that of the film-within-a-film. The first third of the film is roughly linear, but after that point scenes are connected not by traditional story logic, but thematic connections.
Earl's Least-to-Most Favourite David Lynch Films
Keep in mind that I really, really love all of these movies save Dune - and even that, I can appreciate as an interesting failure.
I enjoy the production design, art direction and performances of this lush adaptation of the novel, but the dubbed internal monologues of the characters, while true to the book, come off as distracting on film. Perhaps the longer Alan Smithee cut is an improvement, but as Lynch himself disowned it...probably not.
9. Inland Empire
Maybe I'll grow fonder of this film after I see it a few more times, but on initial viewing it leaves me a little cold relative to Lynch's earlier works. I do love the rabbit sitcom, though...
8. Wild at Heart
Goofy fun, but thematically light compared to Lynch's other work.
I love the creepy industrial wasteland Lynch created in Eraserhead, and the eerie mechanical soundtrack inspires exactly the right amount of slowly building dread. But the baby is just too creepy to watch.
6. The Elephant Man
I remember The Elephant Man as a profoundly sensitive film. Its Best Director and Best Picture Oscar nominations were well-deserved, but in the end it's not quite strange enough to be one of my favourite Lynch movies.
5. The Straight Story
Simply a compelling story from start to finish, one that not only shows our world's absurdity but embraces and accepts it wholeheartedly.
4. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me
While critical opinion remains divided on this prequel-and-sequel to the infamous television series, I can't help but be drawn back into the strange world of Agent Dale Cooper, Laura Palmer and the other off-kilter characters of America's weirdest town.
3. Lost Highway
Not since Kiss Me Deadly has film noir also doubled as horror so effectively. Chilling, creepy, bewildering and funny, Lost Highway is a perfect metaphor for people that lose themselves to madness and self-deception.
2. Blue Velvet
Blue Velvet wasn't my first Lynch movie - that was The Elephant Man - but it was my first Lynch movie with all the trademarks Lynch is now known for: a bubbly 50s veneer overlaid atop a writhing core of corruption, deliberately artificial dialogue, daylight horror, women in trouble, duality and a killer soundtrack. I very nearly bust a gut laughing when I first saw the hilariously fake bird chirping away merrily at the film's end.
1. Mulholland Drive
It was extraordinarily difficult to rank these last three films, but in the end Mulholland Drive comes out on top for a very personal reason: it captures so perfectly the compelling experience of dreaming, and how difficult it can be for certain people to distinguish between dreams and reality.
As you can see, there's not much correlation between my two lists; neither Lynch's most or least straightforward films dominate either end of my top ten favourites. In my case, at least, the perceived weirdness of Lynch's films isn't a reliable predictor of my reaction to said films. I can't wait to see what he comes up with next.