When it comes to riding the line between surrealism and camp, nobody does it better than David Lynch. In watching his reboot of Twin Peaks it’s become easy for me to see what it is about his complex, seemingly nonsensical storytelling style that we fans find so endearing: He is able to make the puzzlingly bizarre seem digestible, conquerable, even if it’s something which has no concrete solution. He is a master of the abstract, but where he rises above so many abstract filmmakers is that, at any given point, it could be revealed that he’s just a troll trying to mock his audience … a revelation which would somehow be deeply satisfying. It’s this sense of mischievousness that gives Lynch the edge. His films don’t seem to come from the mind of a tortured artist, but rather from that of a passionate, expressive goofball. Can anyone else do it quite like him? No. But these five films make a valiant effort.
Southland Tales (dir. Richard Kelly, 2006)
I’m rooting for Richard Kelly. After Donnie Darko, the cult hit which could just as easily be on this list, he went an made a 2.5 hour, completely bonkers mysterio-dramedy, filled end to end with star power, circus-like imagery, and even musical numbers. It’s a filmmaker using the goodwill of his debut film to finance a flawed-but-pure vision. It’s a divisive film for sure, but I’m happy to count myself amongst its fans. Kelly referred to Southland Tales as his “misunderstood child” and I’m inclined to agree. No, that does not mean I can claim to understand it, nor can I say that I “get” it. In fact, the most I can say is “I’m picking up what it’s putting down,” which is exactly what I think about Mulholland Drive as well.
Vanilla Sky (dir. Cameron Crowe, 2001)
I don’t much like Cameron Crowe movies. Call me a heretic, but I don’t really feel any type of way about Almost Famous, arguably his most respected film, at least amongst my generation. Something about his work rings as emotionally dishonest to me, but that’s something for another piece. My favorite film of his is Vanilla Sky, a remake of the Spanish thriller Open Your Eyes. Where the source material is a bit more straightforward, Crowe’s update delves into the concept of movies as dreams and dreams as a safe space to withdraw from reality — a positively Lynchian concept if there ever was one (especially in the current iteration of Twin Peaks). Where Sky really feels like a Lynch film is in the way that it seems to simultaneously advocate and condemn giving in to a dream world by depicting fantasy to be just as corruptible as reality.
Enemy (dir. Denis Villeneuve, 2013)
I personally believe that Enemy does have a right and wrong interpretation (at least regarding what aspects of the film do and don’t actually occur), but in the end the plot isn’t really what matters so much as the reality-bending experience of our main character(s). In granting the audience a window into an unreliable (but totally believed) perspective, we are given a limited set of tools with which to interpret the on-screen events, effectively removing dramatic irony from the situation. By touting the film to be sci-fi, it defies being held up to any rubric which would gauge the veracity of any scene. This is a notion similar to Lynch’s Lost Highway. When strange things occur, it isn’t until after the film ends that we begin to question it.
Barton Fink (dir. Joel Coen, Ethan Coen, 2001)
Less so in its style than in its thematic concerns, Barton Fink is easily the most Lynchian of all the Coens’ work (I’d say Inside Llewyn Davis is up there too). Fink only dips into hard surreality in its final act, but the entire film is a meditation on the flow of imagination, and what difficulties can arise from trying to guide that flow into a pre-established framework. This film is one of the Coens’ earliest, coming at a time long before they became household names with Fargo, and thus long before they had much freedom within the studio system. After functionally issuing a giant F-YOU to studios with Inland Empire, Lynch found it tough to get a feature film financed, and it appears that some of his ideas on what this meant to his own opportunities to imagine and create has been channeled into the Twin Peaks reboot.
Stroszek (dir. Werner Herzog, 1977)
Remember when I said that I often suspect David Lynch to be a troll? Well same goes for Werner Herzog (who sometimes will even admit to goofing off), and it isn’t any clearer than in my favorite film of his, Stroszek. It’s a pretty basic tale: An alcoholic European man moves to Wisconsin seeking a better life. As our main character finds that the American dream, as it were, is not at all guaranteed, his grip on sanity begins to slip (helped, of course, by his taste for hooch), often to great tragicomic effect. Lynch frequently plays the same game as Herzog, mining comedy out of a character’s pitiable inability to reckon with their surroundings. It’s a laugh with/laugh at duality that few can depict without dipping into offensiveness, and both Lynch and Herzog pull it off by maintaining a poker face as to how serious they themselves are taking the subject matter.
Author: Dan Scully
Dan Scully is a film buff and humorist living in a tiny apartment in Philadelphia. He hosts the podcast I Like to Movie Movie and is the proud father to twin cactuses named Riggs & Murtaugh. Also, he doesn’t really mind when Batman kills people. Follow him on Twitter and Letterboxd.