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Lynch, David (1946—)

Lynch, David (1946—)

Few directors have ever parlayed their unique style and vision into as much respect and success as David Lynch has earned since the late 1970s. Best known for his highly complex and ambiguous cinema, Lynch's most famous film is the now classic Blue Velvet (1986). This coming-of-age story of the naive but endlessly curious Jeffrey Beaumont (Lynch mainstay Kyle MacLachlan) chronicles the protagonist's nightmarish descent into the underworld of the fictional town of Lumberton, which is run by villain Frank Booth (the menacing Dennis Hopper in a role which resuscitated his career). Although Lynch's previous film (The Elephant Man (1980)) had been nominated for a number of Academy Awards, including Best Picture, it was the quirky, independent Blue Velvet that paved the way for the iconoclastic director's influence on generations of filmmakers to come—including the American directors Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch, and the Coen Brothers, and international auteurs like Jean-Phillipe Jeunet and Marc Caro. Lynch's style became his signature, to the point where reviewers, unable to comprehend the assortment of bizarre characters and dialogue of either Wild at Heart (1990) or Lost Highway (1996), simply claimed that Lynch was being Lynch.

David Lynch was born on January 20, 1946 in Missoula, Montana (pop. 30,000). The eldest of three children, Lynch spent most of his youth daydreaming in the natural environs of Missoula. Unsatisfied with conventional school (he once referred to it in an interview as "a crime against young people … [which] destroyed the seeds of liberty"), Lynch attended high school at the Corcoran School of Art in Washington D.C. with his best friend, Jack Fiske, where he pursued his original artistic impulse—painting. Both Fiske and Lynch rented a studio in Alexandria to paint, and after graduation, both enrolled at the Boston Museum School. However, the two friends eventually dropped out over dissatisfaction with the unimpressive quality of the courses and students. Lynch worked at an assortment of odd jobs (including one at a picture framing shop where he was fired for not being able to get up in the morning) to pay for his eventual enrollment at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia in 1965. It is there that he met his first wife Peggy and formulated an aesthetic which would come to influence his work—"film painting": "I imagined a world in which painting would be in perpetual motion … [and] I began to make animated films which looked like moving paintings." During his second year of study at Philadelphia, Lynch produced his first film, called Six Figures (1967); it was shown at a school exhibition where it received a prize in 1966. In April 1968, Peggy gave birth to their first child, Jennifer. Shortly after Six Figures Lynch completed The Alphabet (1968), which generated enough attention to land Lynch an American Film Institute grant for his next film, The Grandmother (1970). According to French critic Michel Chion, the director of the American Film Institute "remarked that it was common to class films into categories—fiction, animations and so on—but that The Grandmother was in a category all by itself." The director then suggested that Lynch apply for a grant to the Institute of Advanced Film Studies, the AFI's film school in Beverly Hills, California; in 1970, Lynch moved his family to California and threw himself strictly into cinema.

His first feature film was the notorious and amazing Eraserhead (1977). A surreal study in chiaroscuro and psychology, Eraserhead still defies definition and synopsis: Henry, who is "on vacation" in an industrial wasteland, discovers that he has fathered a monstrous offspring. After an affair with his neighbor, Henry is subjected to the snickers of the monster/baby and subsequently assaults it in an unreal and fantastic finale. The film opened to both violent disapproval and ecstatic praise—the latter from distributor Ben Barenholtz, who is credited with creating the midnight cult film circuit. Gaining a faithful fan base and prizes at various festivals, Eraserhead eventually attracted attention from Hollywood, and Lynch was offered the chance to direct The Elephant Man by none other than Mel Brooks, who once remarked that Lynch was like Jimmy Stewart from Mars. As a mainstream film, The Elephant Man attracted the scorn of Lynch's highbrow critics, but was nonetheless a success, earning Oscar nominations and instant Hollywood credibility. He was offered various projects (including George Lucas's Return of the Jedi) but settled on the cinematic adaptation of Frank Herbert's classic sci-fi novel, Dune (1984). A failure at the box office—and with both critics and die-hard Herbert fans—Dune nevertheless showcased some of Lynch's trademark cinema. After the bombastic budget of Dune, he scaled down with Blue Velvet and then scaled down even further, venturing into television with the revolutionary cultural phenomenon Twin Peaks. Television had never seen anything like Twin Peaks, with its unconventional characters, innovative score, and mystical FBI protagonist, Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan, again). Soon the United States was buzzing with anticipation over the next episode; in its first season it garnered 14 Emmy nominations. During this period Lynch was everywhere: he made the hugely successful film Wild at Heart, which won the Golden Palm at the Cannes Film Festival; he started a television sitcom called On the Air; he released the music for Twin Peaks, which he co-wrote with Angelo Badalamenti (another longtime collaborator) ; and he scripted a comic strip for the L.A. Weekly called The Angriest Dog in the World.

The television public eventually tired of Twin Peaks and it was canceled after its third season. Lynch's cinematic prequel to the series, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), a return to the darker side of the idyllic Northwestern town everyone had come to forget during the series' progression to more lighthearted episodes, angered most critics and fans. After the film, Lynch stopped working in film and turned his attention to his painting and furniture construction. He returned to the screen in 1996 with Lost Highway, another daring cinematic exercise for a director whose legend most likely will only grow in proportion to the appreciation of his utterly unique talents, style, and versatility.

—Scott Thill

Further Reading:

Chion, Michel. David Lynch. London, British Film Institute Publishing, 1995.

Kaleta, Kenneth. David Lynch. New York, Twayne Publishers, 1993.

Nochimson, Martha. The Passion of David Lynch: Wild at Heart in Hollywood. Austin, University of Texas Press, 1997.

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