Currently, Philadelphia is immersed in the art and films of David Lynch. PAFA and the Prince Music Theatre are both host to career spanning retrospectives that demonstrate not only Lynch’s outstanding gifts as a visual artist but also his versatility. Lynch’s fine art varies from sculpture to collage to painting; each medium touched by his unique sensibilities and interests, just as his films are. Where Lynch’s fine art is manifest in a variety of mediums, his film work spans a number of genres, though this aspect of his filmography seems, to me at least, to be generally under played by both critics and fans alike.
Today, David Lynch’s most popular works are Twin Peaks (1990-91), followed by Blue Velvet (1986), Mulholland Drive (2001) and The Elephant Man (1980). Of these titles, Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive are genre pictures; thrillers to be exact. Lynch has manipulated the thriller genre to explore themes that are not conventionally associated with thrillers, thereby making the films both deeply personal and to an extent less accessible than his other films. The popularity of Blue Velvet and Mulholland Drive is due largely to their Academy Award nominations and high critical profile. Whereas Twin Peaks found a new legion of fans via the popularity of its DVD box set on web based social media, thusly canonizing the short lived show as a staple of hipster culture. The Elephant Man is Lynch’s most mainstream drama, adhering to the popular mechanisms of the filmic biography. What makes The Elephant Man distinctly the work of Lynch despite these genre mechanisms is the cinematography by Freddie Francis coupled with the sound designs of Alan Splet, which in conjunction recall Lynch’s first feature Eraserhead (1977).
Eraserhead is the first of two films by Lynch that can only be categorized as personal filmmaking, the second being Inland Empire (2006), since not only are they so heavily indebted to the visual palette of his fine art, but because their worlds are so insular, as if Lynch has captured images from his subconscious onto film. In contrast to Wild At Heart (1990) or Lost Highway (1997), two films completely concerned with narrative function, Eraserhead and Inland Empire evidently function in a totally different vein of the cinematographic langue. In an even starker contrast to these two avant-garde epics is Lynch’s family film The Straight Story (1999), released by Disney.
It’s clear that Lynch fits Andrew Sarris’ model of auteurism, but the diversity of these works, without even bringing Dune (1984) into the argument, is a testament to a kind of fluency of the cinematic language that one typically reserves for Howard Hawks or Fritz Lang. Like the giants of the studio era, Lynch has the uncanny ability to successfully make a genre film whilst imprinting the film with his own identity. It’s doing David Lynch a disservice to categorize his work as a filmmaker, be it avant-garde, experimental or surreal. Lynch is exclusively none of these things. Yet more and more audiences are pigeonholing him as one thing or another. Why not simply call David Lynch a filmmaker or an artist?