For all the far-from-unearned talk of the impenetrability of David Lynch’s films, each of his ten features is harnessed to a vaguely familiar memory of the movies. Much has been made of the Wizard of Oz references in Wild at Heart and one can make out traces of Hollywood melodramas like A Life of Her Own encoded within Mulholland Drive. The mood of menace that powered noirs like Gilda or Laura is amplified and turned frenzied in Blue Velvet, Inland Empire, Lost Highway, and also Wild at Heart to varying degrees. The lovers and criminals that so often show up in these films might have spent a previous life in Sam Fuller joints or Jules Dassin’s early work and in Lynch’s world, they’re tainted by fear, wild desire, and an untamable kind of rage that tears into the very fabric of their existence.
Indeed, horror is a crucial part of Lynch’s imagery and points toward his fascination with the corrupting element of repression. A severed ear uncovers a world of drug-addled maniacs in Blue Velvet. The brutal butchering of Patricia Arquette’s femme fatale fuels the identity crisis at the heart of Lost Highway. Nicolas Cage’s Sailor doesn’t say more than a few words before he beats a would-be hitman to death in Wild at Heart. And needless to say, the ecstatic, near-unbearable terror of Laura Palmer’s death hangs like a neon glow-in-the-dark bull skull over the happenings in Twin Peaks and Fire Walk With Me. The ugly and the perverse weigh equally with violence in Lynch’s mind but it’s in the bloodied acts – and the dubious memory of them – that Lynch often reveals the lacerating emotions of the confused artists, lunatics, and demented loners he has created.
Despite this, it’s wrongheaded to consider Lynch simply in horror terms. Any attempt to fit Lynch into an established genre is a fool’s errand and undermines the mesmerizing effect that his dreamscapes evoke in their messy, illogical, and intoxicating style. Early on in Lost Highway, Bill Pullman’s fearful saxophonist opines that he doesn’t want to remember things as they were but how he remembers them, no matter the factual inaccuracies, and one can feel those ethos bubbling up and burping underneath nearly every scene he’s shot. This is as true of the midnight-movie classic Eraserhead as the latest run of Twin Peaks episodes, which begins this coming Sunday on Showtime. In honor of Lynch’s return to the small screen, I decided to rank his ten features, each one of which quickly disarms traditional analysis and opts for overwhelming, visceral experience over familiar storytelling or even narrative clarity.