VIP VAULT: David Lynch

“I never had what I consider an original idea until I was in Philadelphia,” David Lynch once said. Indeed, the director, who is certainly among America’s leading experimental artists, has frequently cited his years in our city as critical to his creative development. In 2014, Lynch paid a visit to BMFI to discuss his films, the Philly influence, and his retrospective at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Revisit his conversation with film critic Carrie Rickey, then check out these milestones (and lesser-known gems) from his rich career.

The Short Films

David Lynch came to Philadelphia in 1966 to study painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, and it was here that he made his first films, driven by a desire to make his paintings move. These works are illuminating; in films like “Six Men Getting Sick (Six Times)” (1967) and “The Alphabet” (1968), one can see Lynch attempting to bridge the two mediums and developing the dreamlike cinematic language that he’d bring to his feature debut, Eraserhead. Lynch’s early shorts, as well as some later ones (including “Premonition Following an Evil Deed” (1995), shot using a 19th century Lumière  Cinematographe camera) are currently streaming on The Criterion Channel.

Blue Velvet (1985)

Blue Velvet opens with a montage of suburban tranquility—manicured lawns, rose beds, white picket fences—before the camera dives through the grass to reveal a cluster of beetles fighting and burrowing in a dirt. The sequence perfectly exemplifies Lynch’s fascination with wholesome Americana and its perverse underbelly. In this hallucinatory neo-noir, Kyle MacLachlin plays college student Jeffery Beaumont, who returns home to quaint Lumberton, NC, after his father suffers a stroke. The discovery of a human ear in a field lures him into the orbit of a mysterious chanteuse (Isabella Rossellini) and her psychotic tormentor (Dennis Hopper, electric and terrifying). It’s perhaps Lynch’s quintessential feature film, one that sees his surrealistic aesthetic perfectly integrated into a (somewhat) traditional narrative. See where Blue Velvet is streaming.

Twin Peaks (1990 – 2017)

When Twin Peaks was first broadcast in 1990, Time called it “maybe the most hauntingly original work ever done for American TV,” and the question of who killed teenage prom queen Laura Palmer became water cooler conversation. Just as the titular town’s charming surface gave way to darker intrigues, so too did the show have dual identities, shifting between quirky soap opera and surrealistic horror story. With its cinematic quality and auteurist vision, Twin Peaks helped usher in the age of prestige television and, thirty years after its debut, still boasts a fervent cult following. Once you finish the original series, check out the 1994 feature film prequel, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and 2017’s mysterious third season, dubbed Twin Peaks: The Return. JustWatch has streaming information about Twin Peaks, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and Twin Peaks: The Return.

Lost Highway (1997)

When a series of mysterious videotapes appear at his doorstep, a jazz musician begins to question his wife’s fidelity. At the time of its release, critics were baffled by Lost Highway’s dreamlike narrative, but there’s lots to recommend this Vertigo-tinted puzzle-box thriller. It’s a powerful work with stellar performances by Bill Pullman and Patricia Arquette, a killer soundtrack, and some of Lynch’s most haunting scenes, including one with Robert Blake and a cellular phone that’s guaranteed to creep you out. What’s more, it marks an important turning point in the director’s trajectory, anticipating the avant-garde bent of later works like Mulholland Drive and Inland Empire. See where Lost Highway is streaming.

The Straight Story (1999) 

What if David Lynch made a Disney movie? It may sound like a joke, yet it came to pass with this tender, G-rated road movie. The Straight Story follows an aging widower (Richard Farnsworth) who travels across the Midwestern plains aboard a riding lawnmower to pay a final visit to his estranged brother (Harry Dean Stanton). Lynch’s evocative imagery and eye for odd detail, so often used in service of the grotesque, is here pointed toward a gentle and poetic picture of a family and the American heartland. It’s an outlier in Lynch’s oeuvre, but one absolutely worth visiting. See where The Straight Story is streaming.