Movies have traditionally been rooted in the modalities of storytelling imported from theater and literature and many filmmakers got their start in those mediums. One of the exceptions is David Lynch, who began his career as a painter and continues to work in the medium. Lynch’s initial efforts at filmmaking were inspired by a simple desire to see his paintings move, and his origin as a fine artist is vital to understanding his work. It can be seen in specific images inspired by the work of painters like Francis Bacon, Edward Hopper and René Magritte, but also shapes his overall approach to cinema. Although plot and narrative are crucial parts of his filmmaking toolkit, Lynch has never prioritized those elements as most filmmakers do. His movies are essentially massive art installations—he creates cinematic worlds for us to experience and is more interested in the mysteries that emerge during our trip than in providing answers at journey’s end.
Perhaps the magnum opus of Lynch’s technique is his new 18-hour epic, Twin Peaks: The Return, a continuation of his 1990-91 TV series (and his 1992 film Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me). The original followed FBI Agent Dale Cooper to Twin Peaks, Washington, to investigate the murder of Laura Palmer, a homecoming queen whose life was full of secrets. By the nightmarish final episode, Cooper and Palmer were trapped in the alternate universe of the Black Lodge, while Cooper’s evil doppelganger had been unleashed on an unsuspecting world. The Return picks things up 25 years later as Cooper is liberated from the limbo of the Black Lodge.
Freed from the rules of network television, and given complete artistic freedom, the new Twin Peaks is darker and more violent. The unsettlingly surreal imagery that intermittently punctuated the original is now central, as are the oddly comic non-sequiturs that are a hallmark of Lynch’s most personal work.
The result is a stunning, deep dive into the most complex world Lynch has ever created, and by extension into his own psyche. Although Lynch refuses to explain his work, he has spoken and written (particularly in his book Catching the Big Fish) about his use of meditation to draw ideas from his subconscious mind. In the new documentary David Lynch: The Art Life, Lynch said, “Every time you do something, you go with ideas, and sometimes the past can conjure those ideas.” Anyone curious about Lynch’s past and how it shapes his work should check out this illuminating documentary. The filmmaker is unusually open about his childhood, family and early days as a struggling artist. (His story about the first time he tried marijuana is worth the price of admission alone). However, there remains a personal core that he is clearly determined to keep private.
Lynch’s work has always been rooted in the imagery and concepts that he finds in this place where his deepest inner-self intersects with the world around him. He has been drawing mesmerizing art from that wellspring for the past 50 years and Twin Peaks: The Return shows that his fertile mind remains a rich source of cinematic brilliance.