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It’s Time to Get into the Surreal World of David Lynch

These are strange times, and we’re all trying to hold it together. But what if we didn’t? What if, instead of comforting ourselves with nostalgia, or baking, or exercising, or any other normal coping mechanism, we chose instead to embrace the surreality of what’s going on right now? As a pandemic sweeps the world, and as schools and churches and stores and movie theaters close down, everything feels a little… off. Maybe we should embrace this bizarre new reality instead of letting it overwhelm us.

It recalls a quote from David Lynch: “I don’t think that people accept the fact that life doesn’t make sense. I think it makes people terribly uncomfortable.” And while it’s very understandable that people are struggling with that sentiment in the midst of COVID-19, there can be peace in wrestling with that discomfort.

That’s why now might be a great time to get into Lynch’s work, as his entire filmography is predicated on the above quote. He’s an artist infatuated with the nonsensical, the things we can’t explain, the odd spaces between normalcy where real life withers and wanes. There’s something melodic about entering his world, where visions bleed into reality, where colors blur, and where time is of no importance.

If you’re new to David Lynch’s filmography, we’ve put together this handy guide of where to begin, how to watch, and what to expect from each movie and show.

The Twin Peaks Universe

Twin Peaks is the perfect place to start. The original series is about as close to “mainstream” as anything Lynch ever made, but it’s still got his trademarks oddities. It moves at a snail’s pace, it hits the highest emotional highs and the lowest lows, and it’s packed with style and an incredible soundtrack from Angelo Badalamenti. It’s also an expansive world, with a follow-up movie and sequel TV series that get even deeper into the lore of Twin Peaks, Washington.

It's Time To Get Into The Surreal World Of David Lynch_1
CBS Television Distribution

Twin Peaks (1990-1991)

The ABC series starts with one of the most impressive, strange, and cinematic pilots of all time, centered on a discovery: the body of high school student Laura Palmer, “wrapped in plastic,” angelically preserved. The series is about unlocking her mysterious murder, and the local townsfolk affected by and involved in her death.

We’re introduced to zany FBI agent Dale Cooper, who enmeshes himself in the community, fondly appropriating local culture (like that damn fine cherry pie at the Double R Diner) and getting to know every last odd citizen of the town. He also encounters a transcendent otherworld that exists in Twin Peaks, where people talk backwards and where the answers he seeks exist… if he can only decrypt them.

The show aired for two seasons, and Lynch was less involved in the second—things get a little dicey around the midpoint of that season, and the show fizzles out shortly after. (Although the finale episode is a stunner.) Still, it obviously aged well, and is one of the most iconic shows of all time, known for bringing that cinematic quality to the small screen—something we continue to replicate.

Where to watch: Netflix

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)

The year after Twin Peaks‘ cancelation, Lynch decided to continue Laura Palmer’s story in the prequel film Fire Walk with Me. It’s here that we get to know more about the “beautiful dead girl,” a Trope that Lynch subverts and continues to play with.

We see Laura’s daily life, and the otherworldly horrors that blur her reality, encasing her in a world of sexual abuse, addiction, and trauma. It’s a heartbreaking film, and one that was panned upon first release, perhaps partially because Fire Walk with Me isn’t interested in the iconography of Twin Peaks. Instead, it peeks behind the curtain of a beautiful young girl and investigates what the world does to them.

Where to watch: Criterion Channel

Twin Peaks: The Return (2017)

Playing good on a quote from the first season of Twin Peaks, we did indeed see Laura Palmer in the Red Room again 25 years later. David Lynch revisited Twin Peaks in 2017 for a limited series sequel on Showtime. The effects… well, we’ve already used the word “transcendent” but Twin Peaks: The Return truly was. Not only did it take us to other locations around the country—making it a sharp examination of dangerous Americana—it also dived deep into the mythos of this world, including an episode (“Part 8”) that will be shown in film school for the rest of forever.

Laura Palmer says her famous quote I'll see you again in 25 years in a scene from Twin Peaks.CBS Television / via Giphy

But fair warning: The Return is way more in line with Fire Walk with Me than with the original series. It does away with normal television format. The episodes follow no coherent structure, and some characters will appear and then disappear for several installments. But if you love these characters, and especially if you love Dale Cooper and Laura Palmer, it’s such a beautiful and rewarding experience.

Where to watch: SHOWTIME Now

Lynch’s “Big Four” Movies

Outside of Twin Peaks, David Lynch is probably best known for four specific movies, and they’re perfect for the next segment of your Lynchian journey. All of them are—you guessed it—quite strange. And each had a major impact on cinema around their release, in differing ways. They’re all films you’d watch in film school, and they aren’t what one would call “easily accessible.” But if you jibe with any of these, congratulations: you’re officially a David Lynch fan.

The ugly baby from David Lynch's Eraserhead.American Film Institute

Eraserhead (1977)

Lynch’s first feature film was this 1977 gross-out body horror classic. It stars Jack Nance as Henry, a lonely man who lives in a sparse apartment in an industrial neighborhood. He learns that a brief fling with a woman named Mary X resulted in her pregnancy, and when she gives birth, it’s to a bizarre alien-like creature that screams and oozes liquid.

Above all else, the film is about the fears of fatherhood. But it’s told surrealistically and grotesquely; it seeps into your skin and squeals in your brain like a grungy parasite. It wasn’t a big hit upon release, but it gained traction as a midnight movie, and is now considered a cult classic. If you’re squeamish, it may not be for you. But don’t let it frighten you; at the core of the story is something beautifully human.

Where to watch: Criterion Channel

Blue Velvet (1986)

Possibly Lynch’s most famous piece of work outside of Twin Peaks is the 1986 film Blue Velvet. Another collaboration with Kyle MacLachlan—and one that would pave the way for much of the look and thematic feel of Twin Peaks—it tells the story of a young college boy who returns to his hometown after his father has a stroke. While home, he discovers a severed ear and goes on a quest to figure out who it belongs to and how it got there.

He teams up with the local detective’s daughter Sandy (played by Laura Dern, in her first of many collaborations with Lynch) to investigate the case, and gets wrapped up in the life of a lounge singer Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini) who may be involved. He also encounters one of Dorothy’s associates, a belligerent psychopath named Frank Booth, played to perfection by Dennis Hopper.

It's Time To Get Into The Surreal World Of David Lynch_1De Laurentiis Entertainment Group / via Giphy

Blue Velvet was divisive upon release, but earned Lynch an Academy Award nomination for Best Director. Imagery from the film is up there with Twin Peaks in terms of icon status, like Rossellini singing in the lush pink and blue light of the lounge. Some critics rank it as one of the greatest American films ever made, and it truly is; like the best of Lynch’s work, it takes a look at the grime beneath the American dream.

Where to watch: Vudu

Lost Highway (1997)

Probably the most difficult of Lynch’s works to sum up in a paragraph descriptor, we’ll say only this: Lost Highway is Lynch’s most inaccessible work, but also one of his best. It ties together two different stories, one of a jazz musician who suspects his wife is having an affair, and another of a young mechanic lured by an attractive woman into an affair that puts him face-to-face with her gangster boyfriend. Patricia Arquette plays both women in these situations, which share more DNA than you first expect. We won’t elaborate so as to preserve the experience of watching Lost Highway for the first time—and watch it you must.

Where to watch: Starz Play

Mulholland Drive (2001)

Originally conceived as a television series, Mulholland Drive is a seminal Lynch film and his most celebrated to date. As in Lost Highway, it weaves together different narratives and identities. It begins with a woman named Rita, who has lost all of her memory in a car crash. She wanders, dazed, through a dreamlike version of Los Angeles, and takes refuge in the apartment of a young, bubbly actress named Betty. The two bond and attempt to solve the mystery of Rita’s forgotten identity, which leads them down a strange and surreal path.

The film was praised upon release and is considered by many to be Lynch’s finest work. He won Best Director at Cannes for the film, and also earned another Oscar nomination. In a poll from BBC Culture, Mulholland Drive was named the best film of the aughts.

Where to watch: Rent on iTunes

Hard-to-Find Gems

It hurts us to mention these films because they’re currently almost impossible to watch anywhere. Neither is streaming or even available to rent, which is a shame as they’re two of our personal favorites from the director. But we can’t just make a David Lynch list and not mention them. And in the chance that they ever get added to a service, we’d like to familiarize you with them so you’re ready to enjoy two of Lynch’s most splendid pieces of work.

Laura Dern and Nic Cage in their convertible in Wild At Heart.The Samuel Goldwyn Company

Wild at Heart (1990)

Lynch teamed up with Laura Dern once again for his 1990 film Wild at Heart. She and Nicolas Cage star as lovebirds Sailor and Lula who travel cross-country after Sailor is freed from prison. Lula’s obsessive mother wants the two to stay apart, so she hires a hitman to kill Sailor. They also encounter one of Sailor’s dangerous friends, Bobby Peru (played by a deliciously maniacal Willem Dafoe), who complicates his newfound freedom and the couple’s wild and free-living lifestyle.

The film was famously booed at the Cannes Film Festival but still received the Palme d’Or, the top honor of the fest. It also earned Diane Ladd—Laura Dern’s real-life mother, who also plays her mother in the film—an Academy Award nomination for Best Supporting Actress. Despite initial mixed responses, it was a box office success and has seen reappraisal in recent years. Sadly, there’s no legal way to watch it online, although you can purchase secondhand Blu-ray and DVD copies on Amazon.

Inland Empire (2006)

Another Laura Dern/David Lynch collaboration that’s almost impossible to watch these days, his 2006 “film” (???) Inland Empire follows an actress named Nikki (played by Dern) who embarks on a strange, self-reflective journey into the character she’s playing. We’re not even going to attempt to describe the movie’s plot beyond that. Clocking in at a solid three-hours, Inland Empire defies any logical analysis or explanation. It’s something you have to experience, and something that may drive you mad in the process.

“Gentler” Lynch

We hesitate to refer to any Lynch material as “generic,” for even his most straightforward work contains his signature style. But these two films represent a softer and less surreal side of the director, and show that he’s also capable of making films that can reach broader audiences. If you aren’t ready to dip your toes in his grimmest work, these films are a perfect way to get your fix.

John Hurt with a bag over his face in The Elephant Man.Paramount Pictures

The Elephant Man (1980)

Lynch’s most commercially successful film, The Elephant Man, tells the real-life story of John Merrick, a man born with a congenital disorder that distorts his face and lands him in a sideshow attraction. A British doctor discovers Merrick and brings him into London society, where his soft soul impresses a set of people prone to judgment.

It’s Lynch’s most “feel-good” movie, although it still evokes his trademark style, and was a huge critical success. It was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director (Lynch’s first nomination). It’s also the film that prompted the Oscars to create the Best Makeup and Hairstyling award.

Where to watch: Rent on iTunes or Amazon Prime

The Straight Story (1999)

This is arguably Lynch’s most mystifying film, in that it doesn’t feel like anything else in his filmography. Tender and pure and twangy, it tells the story of a man who visits his distant brother, who recently suffered a stroke, to repair their relationship before it’s too late. Unable make the journey to his brother via car, the man decides to travel on his lawnmower.

The film is based on a true story, and—like The Elephant Man—was a beloved critical staple at the time of its release. It was nominated for the Palme d’Or and its lead actor, Richard Farnsworth, was was nominated for Best Actor at the Academy Awards.

Where to watch: Disney+

The Anomaly 

A scene from David Lynch's Dune.Universal Studios

Dune (1984)

This 1984 film, an adaptation of Frank Herbert’s iconic sci-fi novel, is a weird one. Lynch hated the final results so much—blaming it on studio tampering that restrained his artistic control—that he disowned it, and in some versions isn’t even credited as the director. (Instead, he used the pseudonym “Alan Smitthee,” a common placeholder for directors who choose not to be associated with a project.) And yet, the final result is something… well, maybe not “great” but absolutely interesting, and a fascinating look into a brilliant artist under constrain.

It’s also the first collaboration between Kyle MacLachlan and David Lynch, one that informed the rest of the director’s career. It’s worth a watch if only to see the burgeoning creative relationship between the two, and to see Herbert’s story brought to life. (Although we’ll soon enjoy another adaptation from Denis Villeneuve.)

Where to watch: Rent on iTunes or Amazon Prime

Online Shorts Collection 

If you want another taste of Lynch, be sure to check out his short films, many of which are currently available on streaming services. In fact, they may be the best place to start, as they’re short and give you a glimpse of the style you might expect in his feature-length projects.

A monkey named Jack is interrogated by David Lynch in the new Netflix short film What Did Jack Do?Netflix

Six Men Getting Sick (Six Times) (1967), The Alphabet (1968), The Grandmother (1970), The Amputee (1974), and Premonitions Following an Evil Deed (1995)

One of the best places to find a smattering of Lynch shorts is on the Criterion Channel. The streaming service offers a collection of five, about a range of fascinating ideas. Six Men Getting Sick (Six Times) features a series of figures regurgitating objects as a siren wails.

The Alphabet includes both animation and live-action and is about a fear of learning. The Grandmother—a lengthier short at 33 minutes—is mostly silent and follows a young boy who “grows” a grandmother to escape his parents’ abuse.

The Amputee is about a woman attempting to write a letter while a nurse amputates her legs. (The woman is played by Catherine Coulson, the Log Lady in Twin Peaks.)

Premonitions Following an Evil Deed uses footage Lynch shot from a restored Lumiere camera and is part of the film Lumiere and Company, a celebration of camera’s 100 years in existence.

All of these films were previously packaged together and sold as a DVD called The Short Films of David Lynch.

Where to watch: Criterion Channel

What Did Jack Do? (2017)

This short first premiered at Fondation Cartier pour l’Art Contemporain in Paris in 2017, but was recently made available on Netflix. It stars Lynch himself, who plays a detective questioning a monkey named Jack about a murder he potentially committed. The black-and-white short occurs on a train and also features a cameo by Lynch’s wife, Emily Stolfe.

Where to watch: Netflix

Featured Image: Netflix