Directors’ Trademarks: David Lynch

Unlike the other people who have been featured in this column in the past, David Lynch is less a director and more an artist. He is a writer, a visual artist, an actor, and a musician in addition to being a director. Above all, he is an interesting personality. His style is best described as surreal, and is not for the faint of heart. His films are typically sparse in action (but frequently violent), heavy in drama, and dwell in the bizarre. As such, despite being so well-renowned for his unique perspective, his films don’t have a lot of commercial success simply because they don’t appeal to the masses. Therefore, to say that he is somewhat overrated as a director would not be a lie, but his style is nevertheless unique, impactful, and truly innovative.  

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Born in Missoula, MT, David Lynch became interested in drawing and painting at a young age. In the late 60’s he lived in a high-crime area of Philadelphia which heavily inspired his work. To enhance his artistic vision, Lynch began experimenting with short film as a way to expand his paintings. He experimented with short films and found some success, eventually convincing the American Film Institute to give him a grant to developed his techniques further. His first feature film, Eraserhead (1977) was also a result of funding from AFI. It was entered into several film festivals where audiences and critics were shocked. Slowly it developed an underground following and eventually Lynch was approached to make a more mainstream film. That film, The Elephant Man (1980) was a critical and commercial success. Due to this success, George Lucas approached Lynch to direct Return of the Jedi, but Lynch refused because he didn’t want to ruin Lucas’ vision for the film. However, he got another opportunity to direct a big budget sci-fi epic in 1984’s Dune. That film was a complete disaster, with endless production problems and incessant studio involvement that ended up jeopardizing Lynch’s vision. Blue Velvet was his next film (1985), and was loved by critics and later became a cult classic. He followed this with Wild at Heart (1990), which received moderate reviews. Lynch’s next project was the TV show Twin Peaks (1990 – 1991) and the follow-up prequel film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992), which is probably his most popular and widely acclaimed contribution. The last two decades of his career have been sparse with feature film releases. In 1997, he directed Lost Highway and in 1999 he directed The Straight Story.  A Straight Story was uncharacteristically straight-forward for Lynch, yet received very good reviews. Mulholland Drive (2001) is his last big production, and is probably the one film that film aficionados talk about the most. Critic and audience opinion to this day are still heavily divided. However, you can’t deny that this film has had a huge impact. Finally, Lynch’s last film was the very bizarre Inland Empire (2006), which has received good reviews but left most viewers scratching their heads.

So the question posed is, if you are watching a David Lynch film and you don’t know it, what are the things to look for that would identify it as such? Here are five of Lynch’s trademarks as director, in no particular order:


Dream Sequences and Surreal Visuals

When people think of David Lynch, what immediately comes to mind is the surrealist perspective and presentation of his films. Everything that the man has ever done is bizarre, and this isn’t limited to their visual or audio presentation. The stories he tells often find themselves contrasting reality with surreal moments and putting characters in surreal situations. The severed ear in the field in Blue Velvet, is an excellent example. Or the mutant baby in Eraserhead. Dreams are commonly surreal experiences, and therefore they fit hand in hand with Lynch’s voice as a filmmaker. Characters having surreal dreams are common in a David Lynch film. They are used to connect various plot elements (as in Twin Peaks), or help explain a twist.     


Moving Object Close-Ups

Lynch likes to zoom in on moving objects that often aren’t important to the overall plot, but add meaning to the story. In Twin Peaks, Lynch focuses on a spinning fan in the background a couple different times. The fan is actually meaningless to the plot, but the whirling noise and vibrations add sensory impact. In The Elephant Man, Lynch focuses a few times on a clock tower. We hear the gears turning as the clock reaches the hour and then the bell tolls. The purpose of this detour could be many things. The moving clock hands show the passage of time, the ringing bell is an ominous warning of events that will occur, and the noises are disturbing by themselves which creates an uneasy tone. In the opening scene of Dune, Lynch focuses his camera on the eye and mouth of the Navigator, simultaneously grossing out the audience while also indicating this creature’s dependence on the spice Melange, and therefore setting up the plot of the entire film. In the first scene of Blue Velvet the camera zooms in on a number of objects before ultimately crawling througgh the grass as if showing the perspective of a bug. 


Fade Transitions/Overlays

One of Lynch’s favorite techniques is to transition from one scene to another, or from one camera angle to another using a fade. More importantly, he likes to use a fade to layer one image of film on top of another. Not only is this an artistic choice, but it makes sense when you consider the structure of his films as well. In dream sequences, the overlapped images help to add context to what the audience is witnessing. In Dune, this is a useful tool when Lynch wants to show that Paul is having a vision. Rather than switching to show the vision by itself, Paul’s head fades into the sequence. It gives the audience context and allows them to understand what is happening.


 Ambient Noise and Music

The easiest way to tell that you are watching a David Lynch film is that there will be noise almost all of the time, even if it’s very faint, and even if nothing is happening. Lynch likes to use low frequency ambient noise to add texture and depth to the picture. It’s a very haunting experience and can add a lot of emotion to an otherwise uneventful sequence. In addition to haunting, rumbling ambient noise, the music in David Lynch’s films is also similarly utilized. Lynch often uses slow, melodic, and haunting music. The simpler the better. Lynch frequently collaborates with Angelo Badalamenti on the music for his projects. Badalamenti and Lynch have a strong working relationship, and he has worked on all of Lynch’s feature productions since Blue Velvet except Inland Empire.   

Travelling via Dark Passages

One of Lynch’s signature shots is a car travelling down an empty highway/roadway at night. The opening title sequence from Mulholland Drive is an excellent example. The only lighting in the shot is either the lights from a car or lighting from behind the camera. The lighting behind the camera illuminates the painted lines on the road and makes them stand out against the darkness. Combined with a Badalamenti score or haunting background noise, this shot ends up being very powerful. The idea being that a major character is travelling through the unknown towards the future. Some of his films don’t feature the highway shot at night, but they have something similar such as a character walking along a dark road at night (such as in Eraserhead). Dune and Elephant Man don’t feature this shot namely because they don’t take place in contemporary times. In Elephant Man there is a sequence where Anthony Hopkin’s character is walking through abandoned run-down streets to meet the Elephant Man for the first time. In Dune, the sequence of House Atreides travelling via Heighliner to Arrakis is similar in concept and execution.


Want more? Check out the last installment:

Directors’ Trademarks: Steven Spielberg