Lynch's first feature film, 1976's Eraserhead, was a spooky black-and-white independent venture that played like a sex nightmare captured in lucid form (well, semilucid). It told the story of Henry Spencer, a pillar-haired man who finds his already-fearful life made all the more fearful when he unwittingly fathers a demanding, helpless, half-human infant. Henry eventually kills the baby. Or maybe he just sets it free. Either way, the results are both awful and wondrous. The film's meanings were hardly plain (Lynch later admitted that the story partly reflected his own fears about the confinements of youthful marriage and fatherhood), but for many viewers, Eraserhead's fantastic imagery and industrial-Gothic atmosphere were meaning enough. Though some critics saw the influences of surrealism and expressionism in the movie, Lynch claims he was simply filming the vision that he saw in his own head. One thing is for certain: Eraserhead was a radical and indelible viewing experience, and it presented Lynch as one of the few fully original visionaries to emerge in postwar American cinema.
Eraserhead played largely to college audiences and midnight art-house crowds. With his next film, The Elephant Man (produced by Mel Brooks), Lynch got the chance to reach for a broader audience. The Elephant Man was Lynch's version of the life of John Merrick, the horribly deformed man in Victorian England who briefly managed to transcend the cruelty of his own body and of the world around him. Lynch's script for the film was linear and fairly orthodox, even old-fashioned – like a 1930s or '40s misunderstood-beast horror tale – but the movie's cinematography had much the same abstract, spectral look as Eraserhead. The effort won Lynch an Academy Award nomination for Best Director and also earned him the chance to direct Dino De Laurentiis' production of Frank Herbert's epic science-fiction novel, Dune. The latter proved a disaster, an embarrassing, indecipherable mess – though, like nearly all of Lynch's work, it still held moments of stunning imagery. Lynch later forced the removal of his name from the film's credits. "With Dune," he says, "I felt like I had sort of sold myself out."
Dune's failure turned out to be a saving grace. Had it been a mass success, Lynch might have got snared in the Hollywood machinery that reduces interesting filmmakers to blockbuster formalists. Instead, with his next movie, Blue Velvet (1986), Lynch delivered a wonderfully twisted landmark of modern film. Blue Velvet is the story of Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan), a young man who returns to the small city he was raised in and finds that behind the town's pacific façades, people are living lives of malice, corruption and humiliation. Jeffrey also finds terrifying desires within himself, including an appetite for sexually abusing a woman (Dorothy, played by Isabella Rossellini) who is so damaged that, without more damage, she can no longer feel longing or trust. Blue Velvet – with its dark town and dark souls, and its strangely hopeful ending – earned Lynch his second Oscar nomination.
Four years later, Lynch took the same obsessions that defined Blue Velvet and transported them to prime-time network television. Twin Peaks, an ABC series created by Lynch with screenwriter and author Mark Frost, was the story of a small-town homecoming queen, Laura Palmer (played by Sheryl Lee), whose murder tears open a whole community's intricate webwork of secret sex, violence and horror. It was also the story of FBI agent Dale Cooper (MacLachlan), whose investigation of Laura Palmer's death leads him to some creepy discoveries about how evil can share the places and dreams where people live, and how it can get passed along from troubled heart to troubled heart.
For its first several weeks, Twin Peaks was a sensation. More important, it demonstrated that network television was capable of producing an audacious and cutting-edge work of culture. But Twin Peaks' ratings began to dip, and Lynch says the network pressed him and Frost to solve the central murder mystery.
"The murder of Laura Palmer," Lynch says, "was the center of the story, the thing around which all the show's other elements revolved – like a sun in a little solar system. It was not supposed to get solved. The idea was for it to recede a bit into the background, and the foreground would be that week's show. But the mystery of the death of Laura Palmer would stay alive. And it's true: As soon as that was over, it was basically the end. There were a couple of moments later when a wind of that mystery – a wind from that other world – would come blowing back in, but it just wasn't the same, and it couldn't be the same. I loved Twin Peaks, but after that, it kind of drifted for me."
After Twin Peaks, things misfired badly for Lynch. His prize-winning film at Cannes, Wild at Heart (based on the novel by Barry Gifford), seemed unfocused and loopy compared with his earlier, better works. Then Lynch made his worst mistake: He returned to the terrain of his greatest success, Twin Peaks, and plumbed its dark central story. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me aimed to reveal the events leading up to Laura Palmer's murder, but the TV series had already done so by outlining her descent into hell, then leaving its details to the viewer's imagination. Still, the movie had some powerful moments – a narcotized sex party at a roadhouse club, monstrous rages between Laura and her father, the bloody train-car murder ritual – and brilliant, terror-giving performances by Ray Wise (as Leland Palmer) and Sheryl Lee. Reviewers tore the film apart. This was not the Twin Peaks that fans remembered.
Lynch's stellar moment had faded – or, some critics would say, had been tarnished by the director himself. He had changed film, he had changed television, but most of that was forgotten. Popular culture turns over quickly, and David Lynch had fallen off its wheel.
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