What is cinema? For me, just like most people, it used to be a source of entertainment. A means to kill time, and have some fun along the way. Until recently, I never comprehended cinema as an art form – like music, prose or poetry. I always believed it to be a combination of a variety of artistic forms, with the director being just someone who stitches it all together. Never did I consider the craft that goes into film-making. Now, looking back, I realize how stupid and ignorant I have been. But, I don’t think it is just me alone. Popular cinema has always been an entertainment bandwagon. Even great cinematic triumphs were designed to fit into a certain template – a narrative fantasy where there is a beginning and an end, where everything makes sense.
Perhaps the fact that he was a painter long before he forayed into film-making helped David Lynch steer clear of this conventional film milieu. You see, unlike cinema, paintings never really give you any answers. There is a mystical quality to them, where there are multiple answers, and no one explanation is right or wrong. Would the Mona Lisa be the great painting that it turned out to be, had da Vinci explicitly explained it? The great impressionist painter Edgar Degas once said, “Art is not what you see, it is what you make others see”. It is this artistic philosophy that Lynch brings to his film-making, where his films are all what we make of them.
David Lynch is a weird man, so much so that he could easily fit in among the characters in his movies. He believes that the primary objective of cinema, or art in general, is to evoke a response. It could even be hatred or contempt, it doesn’t matter. He only considers his work a failure if it is ignored, if it doesn’t merit a reaction, if it is ordinary ! Fortunately, that has never been the case. Right from his début with the eerie body horror classic ‘Eraserhead’, Lynch has constantly redefined the craft of cinema, while dismantling the conventional order of narrative structure. With weird characters, gory imagery, an uncanny humor and a slew of symbolism, he shocks and horrifies his audiences, who are treated with an experience unlike anything they ever had before. His fascination with dream logic and the idea of surreal imagery has often made his critics label his movies to be a disjointed collage of grotesque images. But is that all there is to it? Is he just a depraved soul, whose imaginative manifestations are taken a little too seriously ? Honestly, it doesn’t matter !
The fact that most of his movies tread on the edge of reality leads many people to speculate that his movies are the derived from his dreams. Actually, it is quite the contrary. All of Lynch’s works are wrapped around a simple premise, “an idea”, as he calls it. The idea could be anything, from a character, a sequence or an emotion; which slowly matures into a concept. But unlike conventional filmmakers, a lot of his films do not have a structural narrative. Take, for example, his debut ‘Eraserhead’; the film deals with a man’s fears of parenthood and the idea of raising a child in the post-modern industrial world. But, in conveying this idea, the movie plays out like a nightmare, where characters pop in and out, doing things one would never expect them to do. There is a lot of symbolism, some you may discern and some remain a mystery. You may find it overwhelming at times, but in trademark Lynch style, it never fails to fascinate.
At first glance, it may appear that all of Lynch’s films are conceived and shot similarly. Yes, he plays around with a lot of similar themes, and he constantly pushes the envelope; but some go deeper than others. His last feature, ‘Inland Empire’, which is probably his least discernible film, was shot without a complete script, with him writing the scenes along with the shooting! And the result is a three-hour kaleidoscope of surreal images, spanning continents and timelines, with the central theme that of “a woman in trouble”. While his often revisited themes like Hollywood and sexploitation are also explored, a lot of it is pure visual poetry. And though it doesn’t make much sense, it is so bizarrely fascinating that you can’t look away. It is in this weird enchantment that Lynch’s magic lies.
A wise man once said that the key to a good screenplay is humor. Without humor in your narrative, the story could easily turn bland. And David Lynch is probably one of the most hilarious filmmakers around. But even his humor is unconventional. His comedy lies in the dichotomy between his characterizations and his narrative, his campy dialogues and his parodic storytelling. It is often the humor that he puts in some intense sequences that make them all the more effective. A very potent example would be his 1990 Palm d’Or winning feature ‘Wild at Heart’. In the first few minutes of this weird, quirky road saga, our hero Sailor, violently pounds to death a man who was hired to kill him, at a party, in front of horrified people. The way the sequence is overplayed is so hilarious, you will start laughing! It is this depravity of people managing to find humor over a violent murder that Lynch brings to the fore with his humor.