What Is It That Makes David Lynch Movies ‘Lynchian’?

How do we measure the importance of an artist? One way is to look at how often their influence is identified in the work of other artists. But an even better yardstick might be to gauge how often their influence is misidentified. By this standard, there may be no more important artist in cinema today than David Lynch.

As the premiere date for the new season of the improbably resurrected Twin Peaks fast approaches (May 21), and with the recent release of the new documentary David Lynch: The Art Life, it seems a good occasion to try to suss out what it is that makes his art so singular. Because for as often as his name is invoked, it is just as often used in a way that gives short shrift to what it is that makes his art more than merely … Lynchian.

Think about how often that term gets thrown around. At the risk of constructing a strawman, I dare say it gets applied to just about any film or television series with a disjointed narrative or surreal aesthetic, or that features any kind of physical grotesquerie (according to Mike Mariani in The Atlantic, Lynch apparently invented the entire body horror genre).

Certainly, the influence is real. You can see it in the nightmare-fuel imagery that pervades recent thrillers such as Only God Forgives and Nocturnal Animals, in the especially weird episodes of TV shows including The Sopranos and Louie (on which Lynch himself guest-starred), and in the noir-soaked fetishism of musical acts from Radiohead to Lana Del Rey. Norman Mailer tried his damnedest to make his own Lynch movie with Tough Guys Don’t Dance, going so far as to cast Lynch’s then-muse Isabella Rossellini a year after she appeared in Blue Velvet (the results were…interesting). David’s daughter Jennifer has followed the family example, taking his signature stylings and placing them in more overt horror settings (Boxing Helena, Surveillance), to mixed results. Other directors, such as Stanley Kubrick with The Shining and the Coen Brothers with Barton Fink, were more successful in their attempts to fuse the Lynchian aesthetic onto their own highly original stylings.

Yet I would argue that these examples, however successful or not they may be individually, are all missing the key something that makes the films of David Lynch truly singular. That something is the working-class aesthetic that is central to all of his films, what I like to call his “blue-collar surrealism.”

When we think of the term “Lynchian,” the agreed-upon definition is the one composed by David Foster Wallace in his famous essay “David Lynch Keeps His Head.” Wallace’s “Academic definition” of the eponym describes it as “a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter.”

Wallace goes on to cite various examples of this, both real-life and hypothetical, all of which revolve around some form of violence or physical deformity. According to Wallace, a recent (at the time) news story about a two-car collision that resulted in one driver shooting the other with a high-powered crossbow had all of the qualities sufficient to be dubbed Lynchian.

But this seems too reductive, especially in light of the movies that Lynch released after the essay’s publication (his third career renaissance by that point, and the one which gave us perhaps his deepest, if also his most challenging, run of films: Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire).

This is especially true of Wallace’s comparison of Lynch to Quentin Tarantino in the same essay. Wallace asserts that Lynch was a major influence on Tarantino, using the example of severed ears that appear in both Blue Velvet and Reservoir Dogs as proof. He goes so far as to charge that there would be no Tarantino without Lynch (a sentiment repeated in the Atlantic article cited above).

This is, of course, not true. Although it certainly seems reasonable that uber-cinephile Tarantino would have been familiar with Lynch’s oeuvre by the time he directed Reservoir Dogs, the ear-slicing scene in that film is a direct homage not to Blue Velvet but to Sergio Corbucci’s spaghetti Western classic Django. Tarantino has said as much, while never listing Lynch as one of his influences (a subject on which he spoken and written about at length — if Lynch had meant that much to him, Tarantino would have mentioned by now). The type of violence that Wallace credits to Lynch had been around long before he entered the scene, existing mostly within the exploitation films, such as Django, that truly informed Tarantino’s work. However, Wallace does get closer to an accurate appraisal of the Lynchian aesthetic in that same section of the essay, when he breaks down the comparison between Lynch and Tarantino further: Quentin Tarantino is interested in watching someone’s ear getting cut off; David Lynch is interested in the ear.”

While this statement once more misses the mark in regards to Tarantino (go look again at that scene in Reservoir Dogs: we don’t actually watch the ear getting cut off, and the mise-en-scène makes it clear that Tarantino is interested in everything but the physical violence), he is on to something in regards to Lynch’s obsession with tactile objects.

While half of the time the tactile objects he obsesses over are of the physical variety, and do fall into that category of violence and mundanity that Wallace describes (the severed ear in Blue Velvet, the draining of fluid from a woman’s leg stub in The Amputee, the entire existence of the mutant baby in Eraserhead), the other — dare I say more important — half are composed of the tactile objects that make up the blue-collar landscape that Lynch’s films inhabit.

This blue-collar aesthetic is the true central aspect to the Lynch brand of strangeness, one that is present in all but one of his films. It’s there in the urban blight of Eraserhead and The Elephant Man; in the white picket fences, suburban front lawns, lumber yards, and roadside diners of Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks; in the long, open roads of Wild at Heart and The Straight Story and Lost Highway; and in the crumbling facade of old-school Hollywood glitz and glamour in Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire. It is there in the anachronistic way his characters style themselves (Brandoesque leather jackets, lumberjack flannel, hair slicked back with goops of pomade for the men; tight wool sweaters, slinky film-noir nightgowns, platinum blonde dye jobs for the women), and in the seedy alleyways, lonesome desert motels, banal apartment complexes, and run down trailer parks where they wander.

It is tempting to dub this simple Americana, or worse, kitsch. But it really is more universal that that. If you went into Eraserhead not knowing anything about it and watched it without sound, no one could blame you for assuming it was a Polish art film. In the same way that Jaws made people afraid to go out into the water, Mulholland Drive made them afraid to look behind dumpsters, and is there anything inherently American about dumpsters?

The blue-collar surrealism that Lynch deals in extends beyond his country of origin. It is just as at home in the Victorian London of The Elephant Man, or in the Polish sections that are strewn throughout Inland Empire. David Lynch the man (or character, depending on how much credence you give to his public persona) may be as American as the apple pie his characters scarf down, but as an artist he comes from a long line of European surrealists. What separates him, however, from an early surrealist director like Buñuel, or the New Wave auteurs like Godard and Resnais that bridged the period between them, is that Lynch’s films are not interested in the politics of class. That may seem contradictory to the notion of “blue-collar surrealism,” but it all comes back to those tactile objects. It is in them that Lynch discovers the uncanny, not in the semiotics of class divisions that those other filmmakers use their fractured narratives to satirize and condemn. (Which is not to say that Lynch takes his working-class heroes for granted, it’s just that he doesn’t present their struggles as relating purely to their station. When representatives of a ruling power structure do make their presence known, as do the Castigliani brothers in Mulholland Drive or the residents of the Black Lodge in Twin Peaks, their origins and motivations seem to be otherworldly.)

This aesthetic limitation is tied not just to the political but the spiritual as well (Lynch has said that Eraserhead is his “most spiritual film,” though he refuses to extrapolate on that). Although the idea of the afterlife is present throughout his work (most notably Twin Peaks, both the television show and its feature film prequel, Fire Walk with Me), he does not dabble in the type of surrealism we tend to associate with spirituality, which more often than not tends to have a psychedelic bent to it (think of William Blake’s “doors of perception” which acid-heads like Jim Morrison and Dennis Hopper tried to kick their way through via sex, drugs and rock ’n’ roll). Lynch is a famous teetotaler, after all, his narcotics of choice being restricted to nicotine and caffeine. That’s why I always find it so frustrating to hear his movies described as “trippy.”

The one exception to this being, of course, Dune, his only film which could not be described as having a blue-collar sensibility. Much has been made of the film’s production woes and the folly of trying to faithfully adapt Frank Herbert’s novel, but the fact is that David Lynch was never suited to any part of Dune (nor would he have been to Return of the Jedi, which he was also offered the chance to direct). The mistake was in assuming that his specific brand of weirdness was of the catch-all variety, when it very much is not. Alejandro Jodorowsky, whose concerns are cosmic, was the right guy for that project at that time (which is not to say his version would have been met with any more success than Lynch’s, but it would have had its heart — or at least its third-eye — in the right place), just as the heady, cerebral stylings of Denis Villeneuve make him as good a choice as there is (such as there is) for the upcoming new adaptation.

The skeleton key to understanding all of this comes early on in David Lynch: The Art Life, as Lynch recounts his idyllic upbringing in a small suburb of Virginia: “In those days, my whole world was no bigger than a couple of blocks … but whole worlds are in those two blocks.”

As we all eagerly (or, perhaps, nervously) prepare to return to a place both wonderful and strange in Twin Peaks season 3 — the first full-length narrative (18 hours!) that Lynch has directed in a decade — we would do well to remember what exactly it is that separates the work of David Lynch from the overall landscape that he has helped shaped over the course of his forty-plus-year career. What — again — makes it more than simply Lynchian.


Zach Vasquez lives behind a dumpster in Los Angeles.