You ever want to make a room go silent? You ever want to weird out a group of people who claim they “can’t be weirded out?”
Okay, then here’s what you do. Put on the chicken dinner scene from David Lynch’s Eraserhead. No one will ever look at you the same way again…or talk to you, for that matter. Oops.
Unless they get it. And if you get it – if you get David Lynch, if you can on some level identify with what he’s doing, with the weirdly earnest yet deeply disturbed nature of his work…then it’s hard not to be absolutely enthralled by his films, even if one doesn’t necessarily like them. It’s also hard not to deeply respect David Lynch as an artist, a true auteur who never makes a movie without getting the final cut, doesn’t care what the reviews say, doesn’t even care if his films are successful or popular. David Lynch is a man who makes exactly the movies he wants to make, no matter how much those movies might unsettle his audience.
Everyone remembers their first David Lynch experience. For me, it was a late night showing of what I now know to be Lost Highway, many years ago. At the time, I only saw a couple scenes, got confused and changed to something else. Yeah, I’ll admit it, I was totally one of those people who didn’t understand what the the appeal was. Seeing those several scenes out of context, Lost Highway at first seemed like it was just trying to be weird for the sake of being weird, and that notion didn’t appeal to me.
Later on, I saw The Elephant Man, and my opinion slowly started changing. Then, finally, I watched Eraserheard.
It didn’t hit me so hard at first. After 109 minutes of surreal visions, uneasiness, ghastly moments involving “the baby,” uncomfortable laughter, nausea, heads rolling around and—finally, at the end—being overcome with a feeling of sheer horror, I’ll admit I had no idea what exactly to think about it. But what snagged me, what finally made me a Lynch fan, was the fact that days after seeing Eraserhead for the first time…well, it stayed with me. The movie is a bit like a grievous injury to the brain—it lingers in your mind for days, maybe even weeks before it finally heals into a scar.
See, what became clear to me after Eraserhead was that Lynch doesn’t just try to be weird for the sake of being weird, and when his critics claim this, they’re missing the whole point; really, making this accusation is much like staring at a living, breathing tree and yelling that it’s a dead tower of dead. Lynch’s films operate in a surreal, dreamlike landscape, highly influenced by Dadaism, Eastern mysticism and Franz Kafka. Like Kafka, Lynch’s greatest talent is the way that he presents utterly bizarre events without emphasizing them, the same way that one would experience these events in real life. Even in a movie like The Straight Story – which despite its utter lack of darkness, is one of his best films – he makes the odd storyline of an old man driving through the US on a lawnmower actually seem unbelievably mundane, amazingly normal. Lynch’s films are like waking dreams, more so than they are movies.
But how so?
Put it this way. Have you ever had a truly ugly nightmare, the kind that leaves you trembling on and off throughout the day? Okay, now, that’s all well and good. But have you ever noticed that as soon as you try to describe that nightmare to someone – as soon as you try to really analyze it yourself – it doesn’t sound scary anymore? No, actually, it seems absolutely ridiculous. No matter how hard you try to tell Bob that the nightmare you had about being eaten by a giant pink Pac-Man with lollipop ears was the scariest experience of your life, your actual description makes it seem utterly laughable. Bob can’t understand. Even you can’t understand, not in retrospect. You need to have been there.
That’s what David Lynch’s work accomplishes. As bizarre as his movies are – from the awkward expressions, to gas masks, to dancing midgets and crude cartoon characters – and as ridiculous as they sound in retrospect, that moment when you’re watching a David Lynch movie is unsettling, mystifying and confusing…and the feeling you get from watching it lingers on, never truly going away.