David Lynch: Deviating from Formula

David Lynch is the epitome of creativity. Although I have met a handful of fellow Lynch fanatics, more often than not, friends and acquaintances express bewilderment about his appeal. Or, even if they do appreciate him, they may still find him cumbersome and frustrating. Although my own reasons for loving Lynch are extensive, here’s a brief explanation of the primary reasons that he appeals to me: he delves into his subconscious mind to create truly unique films that often deviate from standard cinematic storytelling, lack clear-cut explanations, and allow us—the viewers—to create our own interpretations.

In Lynch’s impressive repertoire, Eraserhead (1977), Lost Highway (1997), Mulholland Dr.(2001), and Inland Empire (2006) best demonstrate his deviation from standard filmmaking. Mulholland Dr., for example, is a film that so grossly strays from our expectations of film plot lines that we are left confused, lost, frustrated, and maybe even angry. Some may even think that Mulholland Dr. makes no sense and therefore has no value.

For those of you who are unfamiliar with Mulholland Dr., let me summarize some of its potentially frustrating elements. Lynch essentially rewrites the characters halfway through the film. Every character—or almost every character—assumes a new identity without any apparent explanation. For instance, the film initially introduces the main character as Betty Elms (Naomi Watts), an optimistic, hopeful, and perhaps naïve aspiring actress. But after unlocking a mysterious, inexplicable blue box (which seems to be the catalyst for everything in the movie changing), Betty Elms is no longer Betty Elms. She is Diane Selwyn, an embittered, depressed, and failed actress.

After watching Mulholland Dr., a common reaction is, “Whoa!  What the hell just happened?” What the hell did happen? And just what exactly is that blue box supposed to represent? While this confusion is a point of anger or dissatisfaction for some viewers, it’s a point of intrigue for me. Quite honestly, I grow tired of knowing how things will unravel in a film and of being able to predict accurately how it will end. Of course, not all movies are so predictable, but Hollywood does have a handful of storytelling formulas that it uses over and over again—which, of course, has created some redundancies.

Roald Dahl’s short story “Great Automatic Grammatizator” illustrates the banality many films today seem to reflect. The story depicts two men who invent a machine that churns out literature in a matter of minutes. They simply press a few buttons on the machine to indicate whether they want a novel that’s romantic, satirical, comedic, or what have you, and the machine produces the material. The point of the story being that when it comes down to it, writing—or filmmaking, for that matter—can be mathematical. We can generate a formula, and the resulting story is the answer to the problem. Recall that formidable “witch’s hat” diagram (maybe you called it something else) that we learned in grade school, which illustrated the standard storytelling method: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and a resolution.

Nothing is inherently wrong with subscribing to a formula to create a story. Indeed, I myself love all sorts of movies, even those that rigidly adhere to convention. But, I do grow tired of them. And that’s why I enjoy Lynch—because I never get the unsettling feeling that his screenplays could have been churned out by a “Great Automatic Grammatizator.” If Lynch has a formula, it’s not an obvious one, so we cannot predict the outcome so easily. Unlike so many other movies, the bizarre, unconventional, nonlinear nature of many Lynch films has the ability to surprise me, which is refreshing and exhilarating.

If many films leave us with the impression that they could have been produced by a machine, then they are apt to miss the heart that only a deeply engaged, earnest writer could produce. In contrast, Lynch’s films often do feel incredibly heartfelt, and even give me the sensation that I’m watching this writer and director’s subconscious unfold. The thing that seems to separate Lynch’s creative process from many other artists’ is that he allows the story to take precedence. In his book, Catching the Big Fish (2006), Lynch says that the idea for a film comes to him in fragments: “In Blue Velvet, it was red lips, green lawns, and the song—Bobby Vinton’s version of ‘Blue Velvet.’ The next thing was an ear lying in a field. And that was it. You fall in love with the first idea, that tiny little piece. And once you’ve got it, the rest will come in time.”

Rather than sitting down and forcing out some hackneyed idea, Lynch waits until something from deep within (i.e. his subconscious mind) surfaces. He doesn’t impose control over the film; the film imposes control over him. And the result is often beautiful, dreamlike, and unique—like Blue Velvet (1986). When we allow ourselves to let go of control, to let the creative process unfold organically, we are able to create something that is beautiful, unique, and ultimately more personal. If we impose too much control, more often, we will circumscribe the story within convention (albeit inadvertently). But because Lynch allows his films to surface from such a personal, often inaccessible place, they reflect who he is at the core: dynamic, not easily defined, ever-changing, often disparate and chaotic. And aren’t we all like this? Isn’t life this? So through his films, Lynch shares a very genuine, heartfelt part of himself with us and subsequently provides a realistic depiction of the chaotic nature that we all share.

What I particularly enjoy about the chaotic, unconventional nature of many Lynch films is that they allow room for a myriad of interpretations. As previously mentioned, when I have discussed the film Mulholland Dr. with others, many of them have often expressed an overwhelming sense of frustration with the film’s lack of concrete explanation. Lynch has acknowledged this frustration yet refuses to cater to it with clear-cut answers. In Catching the Big Fish, Lynch says of his audience:

“People sometimes say they have trouble understanding a film, but I think they understand much more than they realize. Because we’re all blessed with intuition…Cinema is a lot like music. It can be very abstract, but people have a yearning to make intellectual sense of it, to put it right into words. And when they can’t do that, it feels frustrating. But they can come up with an explanation from within, if they just allow it…they would come to some conclusion. And that would be valid.”

Lynch adamantly insists that being the writer and director of a film doesn’t afford him omniscient authority over its meaning. Any personal interpretations that he might have for his films don’t reflect an absolute truth, and the interpretations his audience creates contain just as much validity as his own. By telling us that our own interpretations are valid, Lynch reinforces the incalculable worth that we each have. Our opinions matter. We can define something for ourselves, and that definition is legitimate.

Still, it remains frustrating when we can’t immediately make intellectual sense of something such as a film. Why do we often feel the need to have things so rigidly defined? In part, I suspect that we desperately want things to be rigidly defined because if they’re not—if there’s room for a myriad of interpretations—there’s the possibility of us standing alone in our opinions. And somehow being alone makes us think we are wrong. Or if not wrong, then aversely isolated. After all, we often (but not always) seek the agreement of our peers in order to validate our own opinions and beliefs—or to feel more connected with other human beings. And sometimes our beliefs may be difficult to put into words, and so expressing them can be exhausting.  So exhausting, that having a director explicitly tell us what something means can be a relief—having Lynch, for example, explain the convoluted plotline of Mulholland Dr. rather than trying to come up with our own explanation and subsequently trying to articulate that explanation to others. Yet, it seems so much more meaningful when we can define something for ourselves. When we can trust our intuition and what we believe in our hearts to be true. And although verbalizing our intuitive thoughts may be cumbersome, if we do it, we are likely to more fully understand each other as individuals. David Lynch avidly encourages us to trust our intuition and to openly discuss our perceptions with others so that we can reach a place of mutual understanding.  And I love him for that.

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One Comment

  1. I completely agree. He's not just a film-maker, he's an artist. A successful work of art is a uniquely personal expression of the artist, that inspires a uniquely personal response in its audience. I believe if he explained his films, his work would function on a less successful level.

    We are given a delightful peak into Lynch's psyche every time we watch one of his films. I think the key to appreciating Lynch is to think of his films in that way, and forget about making sense of the story.

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