I went into Dune thinking I would see something the critics were missing – I mean, how could the director of Eraserhead and The Elephant Man direct a complete dud? – and… it’s so over-the-top, it manages to not be awful.
The Lynch love of dream sequences, moons, and faces in the sky is all here, and it has Eraserhead’s queasy body horror in the villainous Baron Harkonnen, who is so deliberately diseased, vile and pantomime camp, I can’t decide if he is the worst or best part of the film. Sting does inject some actual menace, but then he appears comically greased and almost naked in a winged cod piece, to his father the Baron’s perverse delight, and spoils it.
Having said that, there is plenty to enjoy in the baroque and sometimes surreal visuals, and a few performances are excellent, especially Max von Sydow as Doctor Kynes, the Fremen liason, and Francesca Annis as Lady Jessica. But the plot is a real mess, and the final half hour is painful.
Lynch wrote seven drafts of the screenplay, his final three-hour cut from the final draft was slashed to two hours at the insistence of producer Dino De Laurentiis, and scenes had to be reshot to make sense of it all. He still declines to talk about the film in interviews. The film bombed, and when Lynch in later life talked about the importance of keeping control of the final cut, he must surely be referring to his time with Dune.
The Elephant Man (1980)
The Elephant Man is as traditional and straightforward as Eraserhead is surreal and obtuse. Both are black and white, and Lynch does use some dream imagery in The Elephant Man, but they’re at opposite end of the narrative spectrum. When you finish The Elephant Man, you are in no doubt about what you’ve just watched and what it means.
The camerawork is precise and every shot is pristine and artful. The story is emotional and mature, with an important message, and the ending is majestic. I appreciated it, and I felt it deeply, but everything is exquisitely on the surface. I’m finding it hard to write about, perhaps because compared to Eraserhead there is so much less room for interpretations. Anyway, I loved it, and I can’t imagine wanting to watch it ever again.
It’s surprisingly hard to see David Lynch’s Eraserhead in the UK, which means it is easy to avoid. To me the title was abstract and off-putting, as was its reputation as one of Lynch’s most experimental, gruesome works. The iconic black-and-white picture of Jack Nance as Henry Spencer always reminded me of Bride of Frankenstein and an older, artier film than I ever seemed to be in the mood for.
To watch it I had to buy a German Blu-ray, which came with an excellent documentary, Eraserhead: Stories, and all of Lynch’s short films up to that point. I also found a Kickstarter-financed interview film, David Lynch: The Art Life. Between those two documentaries you get a good sense of the man as an artist and filmmaker. He’s quite something. His ideas about art and the process of making really chime with me. There is also, of course, the video of him comparing the creative process to fishing, which is fun.
Lynch directed ten films – Eraserhead, The Elephant Man, Dune, Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Lost Highway, The Straight Story, Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire – and wrote them all too, apart from The Straight Story, which was written by Mary Sweeney and John E. Roach. He’s a true auteur.
I find his voice soothing, even though it has a grating quality, possibly because he seems like such a gentle, curious soul, and he talks directly, with great enthusiasm, about what he finds interesting. If I’m honest, this is the other reason I chose David Lynch right now – I intuitively know he has something that I need in my own work. Perhaps I’ll have worked it out by the end of the month.
Anyway, Eraserhead – reader, I loved it. It was so imaginative and pure and watchable and laugh-out-loud funny, which I didn’t expect at all. It’s a psychosexual puzzle about the horrors of unplanned parenthood, marriage, intimacy, capitalism, poverty, dreams – you can take it any direction you like. Jack Nance’s tragicomic helplessness and existential anxiety reminded me of comedic actors from the silent era. More than once he made me think of Oliver Hardy. The sound design is incredible, and the visuals are endlessly inventive.
I don’t want to write about what I think the film means. It’s going to stay with me, and there’s no point repeating what others have said. Watch it and make up your own mind. More than the film, the thing I’m most struck by is Lynch himself – how he works with his unconscious mind and processes his life through art. He says in one of his interviews that the past is always in the present, which I have also found to be true.
I’m looking forward to sitting with him, in my mind, at his studio in the Hollywood Hills, for the rest of the month.
It’s been a tough year, and in the tumult of it, I stopped enjoying reading. Instead, I watched films, which are just as wonderful, but do a fundamentally different job. If you feel jaded with reading, or you want to think a little more deeply about what it means to read, I recommend the book I dug out this week, a collection of short essays, Stop What You’re Doing and Read This!.
I took some notes for myself and thought here was as good a place to put them as any.
‘A trained mind is a mind that can concentrate.’ – Jeanette Winterson
When we read a book we create a unique experience for ourselves from the words, like a musician does with a piece of music. The brain falls into a trance-like state and to our minds it is as if the events are really happening. Strong emotions alter the brain, so reading physically changes us, and in reading we can discover parts of ourselves we didn’t know existed. It can also simply be an escape from daily suffering. It’s a relief to find out other people have similar thoughts and feelings to us, and we are not alone.
It’s thrilling to be transported to another world. The right book is a question of taste and timing. It’s important to love language – this is where books are different from films. Words convey inner experience in a way that film cannot. We can inhabit novels and become friends with them. Poems can be life-saving to people in the depths of despair and sharing our experiences of reading builds groups and communities.
Tim Parks says modern life is fast and there is pressure to rush, but rushing ruins reading. The opening pages of a book show the author’s intent. Writers use the tricks of language to get into our heads, so don’t be a pushover and be ready to walk away. Pay attention and think critically. The perfect mode of reading is a kind of wakeful enchantment. Reading critically is a question of self-esteem.
Jeanette Winterson describes the imaginary world of books as ‘the total world’, holding the inner and outer as one whole. Time isn’t linear in books, just as it isn’t in memory, where we group things by meaning and symbolic power. For her, reading is a way of being at home in her own mind. It’s ‘a private conversation happening somewhere in the soul’. She says books work from the inside out and balance the work we have to do in the world to survive. Art (and writing) is a medium for the soul, so find books that have being, is-ness, vitality.
Swimming with David Lynch
Spring arriving has given me a creative kick. April has been pretty meta literature-wise. I’ve been reading about reading, reading about writing, writing about reading and, of course, of course, writing about writing. It’s all good. The novel is taking the time it needs, and who knows, perhaps it also needs me to do a few side projects. The meta begat new ideas. I want to write about films through the summer and work on some short stories. (Between you and me, I’m hoping the novel will get jealous and push these projects to one side, but, you know, shhhh.)
I’ve been dreaming more this week and remembering them long enough to write down. I listened to a wonderful two-part episode on the films of David Lynch with the Pure Cinema Podcast, which got me thinking about my relationship with Lynch and what I know of his creative process. It’s given me a burst of energy. I’d forgotten how he swims in the unconscious, and many of his ideas align with what I’ve learned in my own practice.
I’ve only seen two Lynch films – The Straight Story and Mulholland Drive. I remember the splash Twin Peaks made on TV when I was a teenager, and I remember enjoying season one, but the second season was dull, and I didn’t finish it.
Anyway, what I’m trying to say is, in May I’m going to watch his eight films in order, from Eraserhead to Inland Empire. I don’t want to review them, but I do want to write something about my experience of watching them. That’s as far as I’ve got with it. I’ll stick links to the posts on Twitter #MayvidLynch.
1 Apr 2021, 13:10
I bought Something Wicked This Way Comes three years ago in a bookshop sale, in spite of the cover, which honestly put me off reading it for a long time. It showed a terrified, wide-eyed carousel horse looking down, about ...
5 Mar 2021, 09:01
This time of year is always strange. There is a drumbeat of family birthdays, including mine, and the pandemic has heightened the sense of time passing. My mother died at the end of February 2014, so this is seven years, unbelievably, since then.
Spring represents renewal. My father has had the vaccine, as has my sister and both my in-laws. I don’t know what my mother and grandmother would have made of all this if they were still alive. The so-far-successful rollout of the vaccines is making me feel cautiously optimistic for the first time since last March. Of course, that’s the other strange thing about this time – it’s a year since the pandemic hit. I remember the paranoia ...
15 Feb 2021, 09:22
Lying in bed this morning, between the alarm going off and me pulling back the duvet, it occurred to me that sentences can capture the high-level aspects of a story as well as the nitty-gritty. This isn’t a world-shattering realisation, and it isn’t like I’ve invented a vaccine or anything, but for me it was a little spark, a sympathetic prod, a loving poke even in the direction of writing enlightenment.
When the creative winds are not blowing, and you find yourself becalmed, those summarising sentences can be like flying a kite high enough to catch a draught that might pull your flotilla of metaphors to fresh coordinates.
23 Jan 2021, 19:43
Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft is one of those books I keep coming back to, this time to stimulate my first draft writing gland and get my novel moving again. I’d run aground at twenty thousand ...
17 Jan 2021, 10:15
I started the week with Blade Runner 2049. I was frustrated with it in 2017, but watching it over three nights at home, I’m more forgiving. It’s way too long. It looks beautiful, and it has some fascinating ideas, but ...
9 Jan 2021, 15:26
In Ali Smith’s Autumn (2016), when discussing a piece of art, Daniel Gluck asks the young Elisabeth, ‘And what did it make you think about?’. I love the openness of that question. Interpreting art is about making connections. There is ...
30 Dec 2020, 14:56
I’ve had a tough year reading books. I fell into the trap of seeing reading as work and lost the joy of it. I filled the story gap with films, but thanks to a throwaway Goodreads challenge (35 books in ...
26 Dec 2020, 17:04
Having watched so many films this year, next year I want to get back to reading novels. Films do play into my writing practice. They show me patterns of story, character arcs, themes and dialogue, as well as feed my ...
22 Dec 2020, 21:42
I’ve written more posts on my blog in 2020 than ever before. It was tricky to start with — I had to find a new voice and get in a groove. As the year ends, and I begin to think ...
21 Dec 2020, 20:01
The protagonists of London Gothic are walkers, art lovers, film buffs and train nerds. They are loners, in the main, fascinated by urban spaces and routes between places. Through their eyes, we see the people who haunt the cafes, galleries ...
15 Dec 2020, 20:55
This isn’t a horror film, though it is marketed as one. The camera is often still as figures move towards us, faces blurred by lights or shadows, and this does create a sense of dread. Much more of the film ...