You Know You’re In A David Lynch Film When…

By
Charles Graham Dixon,

As we mentioned a few weeks back, David Lynch is contemplating a return to TV. Alas, it doesn’t appear he’s making a new feature, but the news that Lynch is creating anything for the small screen is a welcome tonic to the majority of utter bilge we see on TV.

Lynch is renowned for his surreal, dreamlike imagery and his ability to get under the skin of his audiences. Here, we take a look at the imagery, themes and motifs that ol' Dave revisits time and time again.

In other words, you know you’re in a David Lynch film when…

…YOU SEE RED CURTAINS.

There is arguably nothing more iconic in the imagery of Lynch's films than his use of curtains, particularly those of the red variety. The ‘Red Room’ in Twin Peaks is a pop culture symbol for Lynch and his work but he was sharing his love for this light-blocking drape from early on. 

Blue Velvet (1986): It seems Frank Booth gains strength from stuffing Dorothy Vallen’s blue velvet into his mouth and from hearing and witnessing the androgynous Dean Stockwell character lip-sync Roy Orbison’s ‘In Dreams’. Both the blue velvet and the song channel Frank’s sadistic desire for power and control rather than subdue him. Like in the infamous apartment scene earlier in the film, Frank says, “Now it’s dark,” after hearing the song, a reference to the fact that things are about to get particularly nasty and twisted now that he has been ‘fuelled’.

Mulholland Dr. (2001): Much like the mimed Roy Orbison performance of Blue Velvet, the iconic Club Silencio scene reminds both the audience in the scene and viewers of the film that everything is recorded, an illusion, and that nothing is for real. Nonetheless, it is still a shock when the female singer falls to the ground and the tape continues to play, so powerful and entrancing is her performance.

Lost Highway (1996): Dave’s favourite coloured cloth makes a re-appearance here. Did you know that in order to reduce budget costs, Lynch signed a multi million-dollar sponsorship deal with a large U.S. curtain manufacturer to have their red curtains appear in his films? Only joking.  

Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992): Lynch’s prologue/epilogue didn’t perform well at the box office, was jeered by the audience at Cannes and was received negatively by the press. They said: "It’s not the worst movie ever made, it just seems to be." Time, however, has been kind to FWWM and is now celebrated as being one of Lynch’s most surreal and nightmarish visions. Also, David Bowie and a monkey make an appearance so it’s not all bad. 

...A FLICKERING FLAME, FIRE OR LIGHT BULB APPEARS.

Lynch’s films are often punctuated by imagery involving a flickering flame or flickering light bulbs. You see these at the end of scenes and as a means of transition to what comes next. What does it all mean? As with all of David Lynch’s work, there is no right answer and is open to our interpretation. 

Blue Velvet: Blue Velvet is widely seen as Lynch’s exploration of the dark underbelly of suburban Middle America. Does this candle, which flickers and threatens to go out, represent Frank Booth’s arrival and the descent from light to darkness?

Lynch gets up close and personal with some light bulbs in Blue Velvet.

Lost Highway: Perhaps not discussed enough is the incredible use of sound in Lynch’s work. The fireplace fire, so often associated with warmth and comfort, is twisted in typical Lynch style into something unnerving and alien. The sound of it burning is amplified and isolated, making it feel threatening and cold.

Another film, another light bulb. From 'Lost Highway'.

Mulholland Dr.: The light at The Corrall flickers and turns on to mark the arrival of the perfectly creepy Cowboy (who we’ll discuss further later). How would you feel if someone said: ‘If you do good you’ll see me once. If you do bad, you’ll see me twice’. As the Cowboy leaves, the light flickers and switches off. This is not a guy you want to disappoint.

 

…A PSYCHOTIC, UNHINGED VILLAIN IS INVOLVED.

Many Lynch films contain terrifying and iconic villains, the type of guys you really wouldn’t want to meet at a drinks party or introduce your friends to. These guys have bad manners, a penchant for sadistic violence, deliver bizarre but chilling threats and have either blank faces or wear masks and disguises.

The Mystery Man in Lost Highway: Imagine being at a drinks party when, from across the room, you see a ghostly, white-faced, black eyed, demonic figure staring at you then walking toward you. As if this isn’t already enough to have you finishing up your drink and making for the exit, the little demon is saying he’s met you before at your house and that he’s there RIGHT NOW. You call your house and he answers. You look up and this monstrosity is chuckling at you.

Frank Booth in Blue Velvet: Frank Booth, the man who made it not okay to inhale strange gases through a facemask before foreplay. Frank is certainly not faceless – he has a truly expressive and often terrifying face. But he is psychotic and he does apply his ‘smartly dressed man’ disguise near the end of the film, which renders him faceless and actually makes him more terrifying than he already was – if that’s possible.

Bobby Peru in Wild At Heart: If ever an actor had the right face to play a loathsome and disgusting villain, it is Willem Dafoe. It’s actually to Dafoe’s considerable credit that he has pulled off heroic and benevolent roles in films like Platoon and The Hunter despite having an evil face. In Wild At Heart he pulls a stocking over his head and has a mouth filled with some nicely rotten teeth resulting in a brilliantly grotesque villain.

The Cowboy in Mulholland Dr.: What’s so chilling about The Cowboy is his utter lack of expression and actual facial features. Yes, he’s got a nose, he’s got eyes, he’s got a mouth, but there really is nothing there. He’s also malevolently threatening without ever raising his voice or delivering an actual threat of violence. 

…A CHARACTER UNDERGOES A NASTY HEAD INJURY.

What is it with Lynch’s films and the characters within them suffering horrific head injuries? The most likely explanation is that his films often focus on a loss of identity and memory where the occurrence of a blow to the head (or worse) is the cause. Alternatively, it could just be an excuse to show some dazzlingly creative and sickening violence. 

Lost Highway: You'll never look at a coffee table the same way again. Despite our opening, focusing on memory and loss of identity, this particular incident ensures the unfortunate Andy loses his identity permanently.

Wild At Heart: It is hard to think of a more insanely violent opening to a film. By no means is Lynch a violent director; his films are more often psychological and focused on mood and tension. This scene, however, goes for the jugular. Pounding thrash metal combines with pounding blows to the head. The scene ends with Glenn Miller’s ‘In the Mood’ playing in the background while we're treated to imagery of a leaking cranium.

Blue Velvet: A severed ear in some tall grass is the cranial appendage that leads Geoffrey Beaumont to Dorothy Vallens, which leads to Frank Booth and a whole world of sick and twisted goings on in the seemingly idyllic all-American town of Lumberton.

Mulholland Dr.: Rita stumbles bleeding and confused from a car wreck on Mulholland Drive, which overlooks the city of lights below it. This injury to her head and the confusion and loss of memory caused by it brings about a chain of events that takes her to Betty, Club Silencio and a whole army of dark characters in this unconventional tale of the Hollywood dream gone wrong.

…JACK NANCE MAKES AN APPEARANCE.

Jack Nance was with Lynch from the start, playing Henry, the central character in Eraserhead until his untimely and tragic death as the result of a parking lot brawl in 1996. Nance would go on to appear in five other Lynch films, all in small but memorable roles.

Eraserhead: An iconic but ultimately underrated and unrewarded role as Henry Spencer, the confused new father in Lynch’s surreal nightmare.

Blue Velvet: Nance plays a member of Frank Booth’s sadistic criminal gang and does his absolute best to make Kyle MacLachlan feel as uncomfortable as possible.

Wild At Heart: Nance exits as quickly as he appears, making the kind of bizarre impact he always made in a David Lynch film with his wild eyes and deliberately twisted mannerisms.

Dune: Often regarded as Lynch’s failure, Dune is still a Lynchian vision, filled with beautiful and haunting imagery and memorably vile characters such as Baron Harkonnen, a floating, pus-filled super-villain. Oh, and Jack Nance makes an appearance as one of the Baron’s cronies, complete with orange hair. As ever, it’s good to see you, Jack.

Can you think of any other reoccurring images and themes in Lynch's movies? Let us know in the comments.
 

comments powered by Disqus