Academic journal article CineAction

Cinematic Meaning in the Work of David Lynch; Revisiting Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Lost Highway, and Mulholland Drive

Academic journal article CineAction

Cinematic Meaning in the Work of David Lynch; Revisiting Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, Lost Highway, and Mulholland Drive

Article excerpt


What does a Gap commercial have to do with Mulholland Drive?

Mulholland Drive, David Lynch's most recent and popularly acclaimed film, opens with a montage of young couples dancing the jitterbug against a solid purple backdrop. This sequence is clearly modeled on a series of Gap ads that featured attractive young couples swing dancing against bright monochrome backdrops, which were all over the airwaves around the time Lynch originally shot Mulholland Drive as a TV pilot in 1998. It may strike us as odd that the director of Eraserhead (1979), whose name can hardly appear in print without adjectives like "cult," "surreal," and "disturbing," would begin a film with a reference to a Gap commercial. And yet in many ways the sequence is in keeping with Lynch's other work. In the sequence, the excessively inflated, artificial exuberance of the commercials is pushed to a kind of breaking point; as the tempo of the music escalates and brightly lit shots of an impossibly happy young woman and an eerily grinning elderly couple begin to flicker on and off the screen, the atmosphere crosses over from energetic and fun to discomforting, even menacing. It is as if the sequence cannot sustain the counterfeit sense of joy that it is trying to convey, cannot manage to conceal the uneasiness and desperation that are lurking just beneath the surface of the image. Since as far back as Blue Velvet (1986) Lynch has specialized in staging iconic or cliched images of American culture in a way that both celebrates the collective power of the images and reveals the disturbing resonances of what they conceal. In this sense, the jitterbug sequence enacts in a condensed form a complex ambivalence at the heart of Lynch's aesthetic: the way the cinematic image* can create moments of startling power and irresistible appeal while at the same time revealing itself as an illusion, an artifice concealing something that we don't want to acknowledge.


However, the sequence also points to a relatively new aspect of Lynch's cinema. In Blue Velvet or the Twin Peaks television series, the iconic or cliched images that Lynch subverts seem culled from some sense of collective cultural consciousness and do not explicitly evoke a discussion of the cinematic image per se. Even the multiple references to The Wizard of Oz in Wild at Heart (1990) seem rooted more in Oz's mythological status within popular cultural than in the way it functions specifically as a work of cinema. However, starting with Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992) and Lost Highway (1997), and culminating in Mulholland Drive (2001), which is set in Hollywood and introduces the filmmaking process into the narrative itself, there seems to be an increasing desire on Lynch's part to reflect on the process by which cinematic meaning is made.

This recent focus of Lynch's work has received almost no attention from critics and commentators. This may be understandable to a certain degree considering that its most explicit manifestation is in the most recent film. Before the release of Mulholland Drive it may have been difficult to perceive any significant links between Fire Walk with Me, which was considered an aberration by most at the time of its release, and Lost Highway, which seemed to indicate something of a new direction for Lynch. Compounding this problem is the fact that both of the major books on Lynch, Michel Chion's David Lynch (1) and Martha P. Nochimson's The Passion of David Lynch (2), were written before the release of Lost Highway (both books do have codas briefly discussing the film, though Chion's is only available in an untranslated 1997 French edition). Aside from matters of timing however, this neglect is also indicative of an unfortunate trend that has developed in the critical community concerning Lynch. There is a persistent reluctance to enter into a serious, in-depth examination of Lynch's work; with a few exceptions--including the works by Michel Chion and Martha P. …

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