His work is not for everybody, but there’s no denying that few artists as provocative as David Lynch have garnered such a level of attention and praise during the period in which they are actually creating. Often, it is only in hindsight that their talent is recognised, as it provides a hotbed of talent for the next generation.
It’s a testament to his vision, not just as a filmmaker, but as a totem for fearless modern artistry.
Such brilliance blossomed from humble beginnings. Born January 20th, 1946, David Keith Lynch spent much of his early life in transit, due to his father’s job as a research scientist for the US Department of Agriculture. He fell in love with the idyllic Middle America of the 1950s, an era which became a profound influence on his unique style.
“My childhood was elegant homes, tree-lined streets, the milkman, building backyard forts, droning airplanes, blue skies, picket fences, green grass, cherry trees. Middle America as it’s supposed to be. But on the cherry tree there’s this pitch oozing out – some black, some yellow, and millions of red ants crawling all over it. I discovered that if one looks a little closer at this beautiful world, there are always red ants underneath. Because I grew up in a perfect world, other things were a contrast,” he explained in an interview for Lynch on Lynch.
Painting would become one of Lynch’s earliest passions. Fearing that traditional schooling was smothering his inherent ability, Lynch left high school to begin studies at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1964.
He only lasted a year. “I was not inspired at all in that place.”
His next option was to spend three years in Europe under the tutelage of Oskar Kokoschka, an expressionist painter based in Austria. When Lynch and friend Jack Fisk arrived, however, they were turned away. Disillusioned, they returned to the United States having spent only 15 days overseas.
A weaker soul might have called it quits, but Lynch persevered, even as challenges continued to rise in his path. He joined Fisk at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where he met Peggy Reavey, his first wife. They got married the following year, around the time Reavey was confirmed to be pregnant. Lynch was not ready for fatherhood, but he strived to make it work. The family bought a house in the impoverished and crime-addled neighbourhood of Fairmount, Philadelphia.
“The city was full of fear. A kid was shot to death down the street … We were robbed twice, had windows shot out and a car stolen. The house was first broken into only three days after we moved in … The feeling was so close to extreme danger, and the fear was so intense. There was violence and hate and filth.”
“But the biggest influence in my whole life was that city.”
He took a job printing engraving, while continuing with his painting, and also trying his hand at film. In 1967, he made his first short, Six Men Getting Sick (Six Times). Featuring an animated painting shot with the cheapest 16mm camera Lynch could find, the film is “57 seconds of growth and fire, and three seconds of vomit”. It would tie for first prize at the Academy’s end-of-year exhibition.
The piece caught the eye of H. Barton Wasserman, a wealthy peer of Lynch’s. He gave Lynch $1000 (over $7300 at modern value) to create a commission for his home. While his first attempt was a failure, Lynch soon came up with The Alphabet, a twisted blend of live action and animation that cast Reavey as a tormented girl reciting the alphabet to the sound of a crying baby and images of dead horses. He submitted The Alphabet to the American Film Institute, which agreed to fund his next as a result.
In 1971, the family moved to Los Angeles to study at the institute’s conservatory. Once again, it wasn’t long before Lynch started to feel like schooling was impacting his ability to create. Frank Daniel, Dean of the AFI, pushed for Lynch to stay. He agreed, so long as he was allowed to produce a film without interference from the conservatory.
Over the next five years, Lynch would forge his first feature film: Eraserhead. Originally intended as a 42 minute film based off a 21 page screenplay, Eraserhead began to mutate as soon as production commenced on May 29, 1972. The finished movie would be 89 minutes long. Lynch was forced to deliver newspapers in order to fund the feature, which was shot in an abandoned stable.
Lynch and Reavey divorced during the shoot, and he started living full-time on set.
The finished film was abstract, haunting, and polarising. Rejected by Cannes and the New York Film Festival, it would eventually become a classic of the midnight cinema scene. Stanley Kubrick called it one of his favourite films. Mel Brooks’ executive producer, Stuart Cornfield called it “the greatest thing I’d ever seen. It was such a cleansing experience”.
Lynch decided that his next movie should be based on someone else’s script. He chose The Elephant Man based on the title.
More conventional in style, but still undoubtedly ‘Lynchian’ The Elephant Man was nominated for eight Academy Awards, including Best Director.
With feet planted firmly in both independent and mainstream cinema, Lynch could now pick and choose his projects. He turned down Return of the Jedi, but agreed to direct Dune, another big-budget sci-fi. It was a flop, and when Universal decided to release an extended edition which they felt fixed some of Lynch’s mistakes, he had his credits changed so that ‘Alan Smithee’ (a common pseudonym in the industry) was credited as director, and ‘Judas Booth’ as screenwriter, to reflect his displeasure.
Blue Velvet became a controversial marker for how bizarre Lynch’s work could become, but the debate it incited only served to raise awareness of him in the mainstream. It also became his second Academy Award nominated film.
Around this time, Lynch created his iconic comic strip The Angriest Dog in the World, which ran for a decade. He also developed an interest in photography, travelling to England to capture images of degrading industrial landscape.
In the late 80s, he turned to television for the first time. Twin Peaks became, arguably, his most popular work, developing a cult following even as ratings dropped following the conclusion of the mystery that had driven season one. During season two, he devoted more time to his film Wild at Heart, a road movie starring Nicolas Cage and long time Lynch collaborator Laura Dern.
Lost Highway, Academy Award-nominated Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire followed over the next 15 years, but more and more, Lynch was turning his attention away from film.
He took to the internet, creating the iconic surreal sitcom Rabbits, and online shorts series DumbLand. He produced a documentary series, directed a concert by the band Duran Duran, became a regular voice actor on Family Guy spinoff The Cleveland Show, and wrote two studio albums, featuring ambient rock and electropop songs. When asked whether he would return to the medium that made him an icon, Lynch revealed he has little desire to do so, but “if I got an idea that I fell in love with, I’d go to work tomorrow”.
Lynch learnt Transcendental Meditation in 1973, and has such preached about it as a means to peace. In 2005, he founded the David Lynch Foundation For Consciousness-Based Education and Peace to fund research into how the practice impacts learning ability.
David Lynch is one of a kind. His eclectic body of work across so many mediums, his loyal fan base, and many committed collaborators are all elements of what makes him one of the greatest artists of our time. He’s been called “the first popular surrealist”, “the most important director of our era”, and “the Renaissance man of modern American filmmaking”, yet it still feels like the true impact of Lynch’s career has yet to be known. Even now, he is creating. Just this week, Twin Peaks returned to TV, to great excitement and fanfare.