The Key to Understanding David Lynch is Being Okay With Not Understanding David Lynch

The case for being confused and loving it.

Understanding David Lynch Twin Peaks The Return
Showtime

In 2006, David Lynch took to the streets of LA with a cow (yes, a real live cow on a leash) and some posters. One of which read “Without cheese there wouldn’t be an Inland Empire.” The stunt was Lynch’s chosen method of campaigning for an Oscar nomination for long-time collaborator Laura Dern. When prompted for an explanation on the sign and the cow, his answer was: “cheese is made from milk.” Unfortunately, this effort for Dern’s nomination was unsuccessful. This moment, though was reflective of what’s always been at the heart of Lynch’s career: things that don’t always initially appear to make a whole lot of sense.

Ultimately, I think this is the beauty of Lynch’s 40-years of filmmaking. His works are not only unified by a theme but by their tendencies to appear impenetrable and often frustratingly tricky to decipher. Likely, for this reason, the majority of Lynch’s work has been relegated to the status of cult classic. He has die-hard fans who, for the most part, love anything he does, but the nature of his work makes it hard for his movies to find broad appeal.

Lately, in film culture, you can’t turn anywhere on the internet and not find a think piece or video essay titled something like “that specific plotline of that specific movie explained!” There are hundreds of the sort solely dedicated to the significance of the purposely mysterious spinning top at the end of the movie Inception. The norm for viewers now seems to be to search for and demand universal answers about anything ambiguous. Works that don’t provide a specific brand of closure no longer seems to satisfy. However, Lynch has never bought into this idea, and seemingly, this is what’s made a lot of his work polarizing.

I think that anything Lynch creates can be best enjoyed when you come at his work from a different angle. Lynch’s artistic vision has always been one that supports ambiguity and deprives viewers of concrete resolutions. He never wraps his work up in a neat little bow. I think his films are most engaging when viewers are open to this in a way that not many movies require. His career trajectory demonstrates that a willingness to deal with confusion and to derive one’s own meaning from what’s transpired on screen is what Lynch has always tried to evoke in viewers.

Lynch’s first feature, 1977’s Eraserhead, gave us the first glimpse of this. The film was independently financed on a shoe-string budget, so Lynch had no one to answer to regarding his creative vision. One of the film’s financiers was Catherine E. Coulson, who went on to play The Log Lady in Twin Peaks. She was making donations to help with funding from her salary as a waitress because she genuinely believed in Lynch’s vision. Thanks to independent unwavering support from people like Coulson, Lynch flourished in creating Eraserhead, and he subsequently made a name for himself.

Eraserhead Jack Nance

In Eraserhead, nothing was off limits. This is evidenced by the film’s deformed baby that has haunted my dreams ever since my first viewing. Shot in black and white, the film is the first showcase of the surreal, nightmarish quality that would become a staple of Lynch’s work. Lynch has repeatedly named writer Franz Kafka, author of “The Metamorphosis,” as an influence. Nothing shows this influence off better than Eraserhead. These ideas would go onto permeate all of his future work to varying degrees.

After Eraserhead, Lynch was offered to direct The Elephant Man (1980). The film sticks out amongst Lynch’s filmography because The Elephant Man is much more straight-edge and traditional in a narrative sense than most of Lynch’s films. Simply put, The Elephant Man is probably the only Lynch film that you could show to a child. This made perfect sense for his first mainstream success. After The Elephant Man, Lynch was offered Dune (1984). To give some perspective on the path his career was headed after his first two films, Lynch was also offered to direct The Return of the Jedi at this time. Dune was a critical failure, and in retrospect, Lynch has said he considers his decision to direct the project selling out.

With these two films and Wild at Heart that would follow in 1990, Lynch was in the adaptation phase of his career. He wasn’t directing projects based on his original screenplays. These films were a bit tamer in the sense of traditional story-telling (though, not in subject matter). Lynch’s creativity seemed a bit bogged down by the source material. As adaptations, he could only go so far in the way of the indecipherability he would later be known for. The standout from this 10-year period would be 1986’s Blue Velvet. The film was his first to be based on an original screenplay since Eraserhead. Blue Velvet sowed the seeds for his return to the vision he’d had with his debut.

Next came Lynch’s foray into television with Twin Peaks in 1990. Co-created with Mark Frost, Lynch and his writing partner struggled with ABC to take the series in the direction they wanted. In fact, Lynch famously never wanted to reveal the identity of Laura Palmer’s killer. But the network pressured him to do so. This struggle alone is indicative of Lynch’s perspective on his work.

Most Twin Peaks viewers were eagerly waiting for answers each week.  Curiosity about Laura’s fate is what made people watch the show. But to Lynch, that’s not what Twin Peaks was truly about. He wanted to focus on the array of campy characters they’d created and his surreal portrait of the insidious underbelly of small-town America that he had previously visited in Blue Velvet.  Was finding out the identity of Laura’s killer satisfying? Incredibly. But, would we perhaps have been better off not knowing? Based on how passionate Lynch is about his work and his original persistence that they never resolve that storyline, perhaps we would have been.

In 2017, Showtime revived Twin Peaks for a third season. With Twin Peaks: The Return, Lynch directed and co-wrote every episode with Frost. With complete creative control, Lynch and Frost took the show in an entirely different direction than the original. I can’t help but laugh at this scene from the first episode of the revival wherein a character says this nonsensical sentence to Cooper: “Remember: 430. Richard and Linda. Two birds, one stone.” To which Cooper deadpans: “I understand.”

Of course, unlike Cooper, viewers did not understand. Though, in Lynch’s defense, the show eventually offered some explanation for this. Regardless, this moment set the scene for The Return. These 18 episodes had arrived to ask more questions than they were going to answer. Popular complaints of the revival were that the series had focused too much on what some deemed irrelevant scenes and characters instead of spending more time with old series regulars like Audrey Horne.  However, this has always been the point of Lynch’s work. Not to answer questions but to raise them, and not to reveal his meaning to us, but to force us to create our own. In a post-The Return finale interview, Lynch said this about how the show concluded:

“What matters is what you believe happened. Many things in life just happen and we have to come to our own conclusions. You can, for example, read a book that raises a series of questions, and you want to talk to the author, but he died a hundred years ago. That’s why everything is up to you.”

This is what Lynch has always wanted from viewers. The other works from the latter half of his career, before The Return but after the original run of Twin Peaks, are very in keeping with this. Lost Highway (1997), Mulholland Drive (2001), and Inland Empire (2006) –all directed by Lynch with original screenplays he’d penned– were beautiful, ambiguous nightmares. These films, along with The Return and Eraserhead, are where Lynch’s surrealism and Kafkaesque influences come through the most.

Twin Peaks The Return Kafka

A framed picture of Franz Kafka in the office of Gordon Cole, the ‘Twin Peaks’ character played by Lynch

Like Kafka, Lynch excels at making viewers feel both connected and alienated at the same time. In Mulholland Drive, many of the scenes are incredibly intimate, but their baffling randomness cements a disconnect. This balance is what makes Lynch’s films so intoxicating. This type of work is where Lynch shines, and I believe that this is where he always wanted to end up artistically.

Upon release, the critical response to Mulholland Drive was a bit divided. However, today, the film’s difficult to navigate mystery has not prevented critics and viewers from hailing Mulholland Drive as a classic. But still, after seeing the film, many wanted answers and sought out “explanations.” My favorite scene from Mulholland Drive is the one in the Winkie’s diner. The scene is one of many that features neither main character and is admittedly extremely random. However, there’s something incredibly unsettling and intense about the 5-minute scene, and it’s difficult to put your finger on why. Scenes like this make me care less about how certain plot points fit into the overall narrative and more about how well they succeed at what I believe was their intention.

This isn’t to say that Mulholland Drive, or the Winkie’s scene, or Lynch’s entire filmography should not be subject to rigorous analysis — quite the contrary. Good art demands analysis and discussion. What I argue is that the goal of said analyses and discussion is better off reframed when aimed at Lynch’s work. Instead of searching for universal truths to his stories, I think viewers are better off seeking to create their own interpretation of the films. Finding something within Lynch’s movies that rings true to your own experiences is what matters.

This doesn’t mean that I don’t think Lynch has all the answers. In fact, I’m certain he does, at least in an overarching sense. Effective storytelling can only be so effective when the one doing the telling has mostly everything figured out. However, this doesn’t mean we need –or should even want, for that matter– to know what they are. By creating your meaning from his work, Lynch’s movies can take on a life of their own. The brilliance of films that create this effect is that you can take away a brand new meaning upon each viewing depending on how you’re feeling that day or where you’re at in your life. In an interview for Sky Movies, Lynch had this to say about how he hopes viewers feel after watching his films:

“When things are concrete, there’s very few variations and interpretations… but the more abstract the thing gets, the more varied the interpretations. But people still know, inside, what it is for them. And even if they don’t trust their intuition, I always say that if some girl named Sally, she comes out of the theatre, ‘I don’t have a clue what that means,’ she goes over with Bob and Jim to get a cup of coffee. Bob starts talking about what he thinks it is because he knows exactly what it is. He starts talking. Five seconds later, Sally is saying “No, no, no, no. It’s not that,’ and then all these things come out of Sally. So Sally really did know, for herself. That’s the beauty of it. It’s just like life. You see the same things, but you come up with many, many different things as you go along as a detective.”

The other important aspect of Lynch’s artistic vision is the experience. He wants you to be scared and uncomfortable and to fully experience the surreal. If you watch Mulholland Drive, or any of Lynch’s films, paying stark attention to each small background detail and “easter egg,” you’ll miss out on part of the intended experience. I view Lynch’s work as set out to prove that, in film, a feeling can be more powerful than infallible understanding. Lynch crafts the dream-like atmospheres of all his films so meticulously. Feeling like you’re living in these worlds for two-hours is just as important as understanding what happened to Laura Palmer, who the hell Diane Selwyn is, or why in god’s name Frank Booth has such an aggressive affinity for Pabst Blue Ribbon.

So if you hate David Lynch, try giving one of his movies another go with these things in mind and see if you can’t find something to love. I think each of his films truly has something for everyone if you look in the right places.

Enjoys watching sunrises and sunsets, but prefers watching the Richard Linklater trilogy.