Everyone knows David Lynch is an idiosyncratic film maker. That is, he has a singular vision that he is quite alone in pursuing in modern Cinema. His films are not made in a complete cultural vacuum, however, far from it. At least since Blue Velvet, a trait like pastiche; a kind of ironic comment upon film history (or pop culture history in general), has been decidedly present in his films. It is an accomplishment that this aspect of his films has (almost) never seemed to be there solely as a kind of fun, post modern or distancing formal feature. He came close, maybe, in the Wizard of Oz-allusions in Wild at Heart and I felt the film was less successful for it.
Lately his films have taken a turn towards self reflexivity; a preoccupation with film itself as theme. Perhaps I should rather say that this trend has been accentuated, as I guess a case could be made for how the production of the films has in a way mirrored the content of the films since Eraserhead, his first picture (He had made some short films before). With both Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire, Lynch has focused on the relationship between film and reality. This is maybe an extension of his earlier films’ interest in the dichotomy between imagination and reality and the gradual breaking down of that dichotomy: An erasing of the difference, so to say.
As I found myself pondering these questions, I started thinking of the films that Lynch must surely have seen in order to comment upon film history: What films would influence his style, his themes, his narrative preoccupations? We know that he is a bit of a renaissance man, and that he refuses to dedicate himself to just one type of film making, much less just one type of artistic expression. This is reflected both in his technical concerns (with film stock, newfound admiration of digital camera, internet as a premiere venue for new films, etc.) as well as in the short film experiments, in his paintings and cartoons, in his eclectic music choices.
Here, then, without much further ado about very little, I’ll present a short list of some films I feel are relevant in discussions about the cinematic universe of David Lynch. Needless to say, I consider these films as grand entertainments and mostly art in their own right. Thus, apart from perhaps giving an understanding of the Lynchian world, these films will also reward the viewer with some fine, fine moments in the their company They may come off as very slightly offbeat, but they are always very watchable and usually down right indispensable viewing for any film fan. Many of these films would also find their way into my own top two hundred-list.
1. Jack Clayton’s excellent The Innocents (1961), based on Henry James The Turn of the Screw. The Director of Photography on that film, Freddie Francis, uses depth photography in a way that is at times extremely revealing, so that we sit and dread what might be caught by the lens. However, in critical moments he is also capable of holding something back, as if somewhere in the back ground, on the lake between the tall grass, there is a solid thing, a woman, but is she real, is she in the same plane? It is a magical film that is indeed about imagination, and with a strong central performance by Deborah Kerr that wouldn’t be out of context in pretty much any Lynch-film. “Was he handsome? – Yes, he was handsome, handsome and obscene!“ Lynch used Francis many years later as his DoP in The Elephant Man, Dune and The Straight Story, which should tell us safely enough that he has certainly seen and enjoyed this film.
2. Nicholas Ray’s In a Lonely Place (1950). Without this film, I can’t see Mulholland Drive existing. This is a kind of film noir, a kind of melodrama, all kinds of great! The less I talk about it, the better to enjoy it for the first time!
3. Mark Robson’s Peyton Place (1957. This gloriously over the top Technicolor drama is almost an early Soap. It was incidentally seven years later made into a TV-series. However, the dark undercurrents, the very bad, dark and sexually threatening and incestuous existing side by side with the warmest, kindest normality, is something that we see clearly in Blue Velvet as well as in Twin Peaks.
4. Harvey (1950) by Henry Koster. The tale of James Stewart’s alcoholic/eccentric older bachelor and his best friend, an invisible giant rabbit (or, rather, a pooka, a shape shifting animal from celtic mythology) named Harvey, is both heart warming and a little bit uncomfortable at the same time. Richard Kelly, a man who has definite Lynchian genes, to put it mildly, certainly must have taken the film to heart as he made Donnie Darko. The theme of which (kind of) reality is the most fulfilling to live in is also something I feel Lynch will have taken notice of.
5. Samuel Fuller. Instead of picking just one film, I’ll name a director. The WW2 veteran and maverick independent director has so many meeting points with Lynch, both in his films as well as in his take on the production of films, that I take it for granted that Lynch knows his work quite well. The Naked Kiss (1964) and Shock Corridor (1963) would certainly interest him. As they should interest all of you reading this. The former has strong heroine (who just happens to be a prostitute) who, when trying to start again in a quiet wholesome small town, meets an evil even jaded city life has never shown her. The latter is about a reporter who wants to write an exposé from the inside of an insane asylum, only to find that getting out again proves difficult. Again, the question of which reality is more real; the reality of the mind or the reality of the outside world, is a thematic concern that Lynch very much shares. It can be found in all of his films, except The Straight Story and possibly The Elephant Man. (I generally leave Dune out of this discussion, as he didn‘t have final cut on the film and was generally very unhappy about the production.)
6. Vertigo (1958)/Rear Window (1954). Alfred Hitchcock’s films have influenced pretty much everyone working in film today – or at least they should! – but especially these two seem to me direct predecessors of the mystery part – the thriller element – of Blue Velvet. The films are so well known that I won‘t say much more about them. I think Shadow of a Doubt by the same director is equally present both in Blue Velvet, but perhaps particularly in Twin Peaks and Fire Walk With Me.
7. Other typical influences to name would be Luis Buñuel, who has almost certainly informed some of Lynch’s surrealistic traits and Robert Aldrich, whose Kiss Me Deadly (1955) is the kind of Noir-film that with its supernatural overtones – and especially the ending – is something that Lynch would appreciate. (And I seem to recall that Quentin Tarantino borrowed Pulp Fiction’s suitcase idea from this film). The Technicolor melodramas of Douglas Sirk would equally interest Lynch, for its colour-rich representations of the tragedies just under the surface of the American 50s. – For, let’s face it, the 50s were indeed American. Also the sudden and almost shocking moments of pure sentimentality, as in Imitation of Life, is a trick Lynch has used time and again.
I realize, of course, that this list could go on and on, and its usefulness is limited at best, so I’ll trail off here, and if some of you or one of you pick up any of these films and give it – or them – a chance, this half assed post will have been worth the two beers I just downed writing this.