CineMasters: David Lynch Programme Note

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‘In a sense all film is entering into someone else's dreams. Maybe we can even share the same dreams, exchange the same experiences.[1]

From Eraserhead’s ‘dream of dark and troubling things’ to Mulholland Drive’s ‘love story in the city of dreams’ and beyond, David Lynch’s oeuvre has always been associated with the psychological states we experience while sleeping. His films generally resist, as dreams do, objective analysis, while the compulsion to understand or explain them remains. Meanwhile, instructive as it may be, it’s become rote to describe Lynch’s work as nightmarish or dreamlike. Is there an ideal way, then, for audiences to approach his films, to reliably decode them, or even an optimum environment to experience them?

We talk about watching or seeing a film, and often, in criticism, attempt to deconstruct and discuss films as if they were tangible objects, to be read like books or described like paintings. Anyone that’s ever felt compelled to share the content of a dream upon waking (see Mulholland Drive’s first scene in Winkie’s diner) understands the impossibility of relating the inexplicable terror, creeping dread or deep, fleeting joy that the sleeping mind can conjure. In dreams, time stretches and contracts, elisions and abrupt changes of context and personae are commonplace and ‘reality’ is elastic. The experience is deeply subjective, usually meaningless to a second party and whatever meaning there is often evaporates in the telling, long though the emotions conjured may linger.

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Dream and nightmare sequences, meanwhile, are a staple of cinema, transitions to and from them signalled with crossfade blurs and sudden, sweat-drenched awakenings. It’s tempting, especially in Lynch’s latter work, to delineate the boundaries of the real and the fantastical. Both Lost Highway (1997) and Mulholland Drive, for example, pivot on moments that upturn what we, as an audience, have accepted as the tangible - however unusual - realities Lynch has established. However, as Chris Rodley has observed, ‘Lynch has made the very notion of ‘dream’ versus ‘reality’ an irrelevant opposition. As a result the borderline between these two states has been reduced to a badly guarded checkpoint where no one seems to be stamping passports.’[2]

Of course, cinema isn’t reality to begin with. ‘Film exists,’ Lynch suggests, ‘because we can go and have experiences that would be pretty dangerous or strange for us in real life. We can go into a room and walk into a dream.’ The immersive experience of cinema typically involves a suspension of disbelief on the part of the audience, but Lynch’s destabilizing films seem to require absolute surrender. ‘When you sleep, you don’t control your dream,’ the director has said. ‘I like to dive into a dream world that I've made, a world I chose and that I have complete control over.’[3] Lynch frequently exercises this control over the medium and by extension the audience. It’s perhaps useful, therefore, to consider any of his films - even the more lucid - as hypnagogic dream states the audience must willing succumb to. As actor Justin Theroux (Mulholland Drive) suggests, watching a Lynch film is like ‘buying a new jazz record. The best way is to let the film wash over you. Sit back and go on that ride.’[4]

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What use is Lynch himself in prescribing the experience of his films? On one hand, television was ideal for Twin Peaks (‘People are in their own homes and nobody’s bothering them. They’re well-placed for entering into a dream.’[5]), though he’s less enthusiastic about commercial breaks. He’s fully embraced digital as a mean of production but remains bullish on the concept of new platforms (‘It’s such a sadness that you think you’ve seen a film on your fucking telephone. Get real!’[6]) He doesn’t do director’s commentaries and eschews chapter stops on DVDs and blu rays of his films, preferring they be watched through. Above all, he consistently refuses entreaties to demystify his films (‘I don’t want to explain everything, I rather leave a door open so the dream can go on.’[7]), though he insists ‘my stories contain enough clues to decode them.’ [8]

Indeed, upon the release of Mulholland Drive, he provided the following 10 clues to ‘unlock’ the film:

‘Pay particular attention to the beginning of the film: at least two clues are revealed before the credits. Notice appearances of the red lampshade. Can you hear the title of the film that Adam Kesher is auditioning actresses for? Is it mentioned again? An accident is a terrible event... Notice the location of the accident. Who gives a key, and why? Notice the robe, the ashtray, the coffee cup. What is felt, realised and gathered at the club Silencio? Did talent alone help Camilla? Note the occurrences surrounding the man behind 'Winkies'. Where is Aunt Ruth? [9]

Uncharacteristic as the gesture was, it was just as characteristically obfuscating, more an extension of the film’s mystique than anything truly revelatory. Inevitably, Lynch insists, ‘it doesn’t matter what I say, zip. It can only be a negative.’[10] You can’t, after all, truly share a dream upon waking. ‘Every film,’ Lynch offers, ‘is like going into a new world, going into the unknown. But you should be not afraid of using your intuition, and feel and think your way through.’[11]


Sean Welsh

April 2017

[1] David Lynch, interviewed by Stephen Todd, ‘Head Trip: David Lynch’, Black + White, 24/04/97 ( accessed 04/04/07)

[2] Chris Rodley, Lynch on Lynch, (London: Faber and Faber, 1997) p267

[3] David Lynch, Lynch on Lynch, ed. Chris Rodley (London: Faber and Faber, 1997), p15

[4] Justin Theroux, as quoted in ‘David Lynch puzzle premieres at Venice’, AFP, 06/09/2006 ( accessed 04/04/17)

[5] David Lynch, quoted by Dennis Lim, ‘Too Weird for Prime Time’, ( accessed 04/04/17)

[6] David Lynch, Inland Empire DVD bonus clip

[7] David Lynch, interviewed by Marcus Rothe for Die Woche, 11/04/97 ( accessed 04/04/17)

[8] David Lynch, ibid.

[9] David Lynch, ‘Follow David Lynch's clues and win a trip to the real Mulholland Drive’, The Observer, 20/01/02

[10] David Lynch, BAFTA David Lean Lecture, 27/10/07 ( accessed 04/04/17)

[11] David Lynch, as quoted in ‘David Lynch puzzle premieres at Venice’, AFP, 06/09/2006 ( accessed 04/04/17)

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