Do you want to understand everything about David Lynch and his work? Jesse Valencia lists 10 things that will help you better equip yourself, and any chance at understanding.
So, you’ve just seen a David Lynch film and you want to understand it. Maybe you’ve seen a few Lynch films and you want to understand them even more. Great! But as most Lynch fanatics will tell you, this is next to impossible …
… until it isn’t! The only drag about this made-for-you to-do list is that it’s going to take you some time, and a little money. David Lynch, after all, isn’t your run-of-the-mill cookie-cutter Hollywood director. If Christopher Nolan and Darren Aronofsky are McDonald’s and Burger King, Lynch is going to be steak and potatoes, or perhaps lobster, or maybe just coffee and cherry pie for you Twin Peaks fans.
Becoming a Lynch scholar, after all, is something of an investment the same way being a fan is, but I promise you, it’s well worth it, especially if you are keen on becoming a filmmaker or screenwriter yourself.
So, without further ado, let’s jump in! And for the best results, do these things in order, and if you do this entire list, hit me up via email to let me know what you’ve discovered, or at least what you think you’ve discovered.
[Special Notes: There’s going to be more reading and writing than watching. You will need: (1) notebook and pen, (2) Amazon Prime account, and (3) Internet access.]
1. Watch all of Lynch’s feature films, short films, episodes he directed of the original Twin Peaks and all of Twin Peaks: The Return and don’t try to think about them too much. Just let them happen to you and don’t take notes yet.
In the same sense that we have an MCU or a DCEU, there is a real continuity to David Lynch’s films that even the best have only scratched the surface of, but it goes deeper than what any of us can see. A lot of it is a feeling that happens to you. If you try to grasp Lynch’s work through a materialist lens or worldview where things make sense, have reasons, and are easily understood, you’re going to find everything slippery as an eel.
So, for the Round One viewing order start with Eraserhead, skip The Elephant Man and Dune for now and go straight ahead to Blue Velvet, then Wild at Heart, Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and Inland Empire and then round it out with a full-on binge of Twin Peaks, in the order of Season 1, Season 2, then Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and lastly Season 3 The Return.
2. Read Lynch’s books Room to Dream and Catching the Big Fish and take notes.
Whoever our artistic heroes are, whether they are filmmakers, musicians, authors, actors, or poets, if you want to know what makes them tick, you need to find out who their artistic heroes are, and what has influenced them. Not just artistically, but in their lives as well, and somewhere between their life story and their work you can get a picture of what their imagination is like.
My friend Matthew Kalil, who I met at the David Lynch film school has a book out on screenwriting called The Three Wells of Screenwriting: Discover Your Deep Sources of Inspiration. The three wells are the “outside influences well,” the “imagination well,” and the “memory well” and everyone uses them.
So, if you want to know more about Lynch’s wells and where his creativity is sourced, you’re going to want to read these books.
3. Read The Art Spirit by Robert Henri and take notes.
Before Lynch was a filmmaker, he was a painter, and he is still a painter. As a matter of fact, he refers to films as “moving paintings,” and one book that has been really influential on Lynch (he’s said so himself) is Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit.
Here is a quote from that book that resonates very strongly with me (and I imagine it resonates very strongly with Lynch too):
“When the artist is alive in any person, whatever his kind of work may be, he becomes an inventive, searching, daring, self-expressing creature. He becomes interesting to other people. He disturbs, upsets, enlightens, and he opens ways for a better understanding. Where those who are not artists are trying to close the book, he opens it, shows there are still more pages possible. The world would stagnate without him, and the world would be beautiful with him; for he is interesting to himself and he is interesting to others. He does not have to be a painter or sculptor to be an artist. He can work in any medium. He simply has to find the gain in the work itself, not outside it.”
4. Watch the David Lynch documentary The Art Life
After doing the previous three things, you’ll be primed for this awesome, in-depth documentary starring the man behind the curtain himself. Without giving too much away, I would say it explores a lot of the same subject matter that is in Room to Dream, Catching the Big Fish, and Lynch’s own “art spirit” philosophy.
And after you’ve watched The Art Life, perhaps it is time for a break …
5. Learn the Transcendental Meditation technique.
I recommend learning Transcendental Meditation (T.M.) to anyone anyway, but I really suggest it to David Lynch fans wanting to know more about Lynch’s work.
Is your mind still boggled by Episode 8 of Twin Peaks: The Return or Lynch’s films in general? Are you dying to figure it all out? I say learn T.M. and read the books of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, who popularized meditation in the West back in the 1960s when he taught it to The Beatles, and you’ll have a better idea of what that whole episode was about. Lynch is all about T.M. and the Maharishi, and after learning the technique I see flashes of it in everything he does.
You can read up on all of this stuff online, of course, but you’re not going to know it the same way that someone who has experienced it knows. Think of it like learning to ride a bike. You could Google how to ride a bike, learn everything about a bicycle’s moving parts, but there’s nothing like getting on one yourself and pedaling off. It’s difficult to describe that feeling to someone who hasn’t had it before because it isn’t a part of reality. So, it is with you, with this.
Reality and time are different depending on how we perceive them in our consciousness, and there are differing levels of consciousness, but entering from one state of consciousness to another can be as simple as pulling back a curtain (wink, wink).
All of it goes back to what is called “the Unified Field,” which in science would be the layer of reality, or non-reality, just beneath the strings of super-string theory (though not being a physicist, I may be butchering this explanation), and everything in existence comes up from it, even thoughts. For David Lynch, myself, and so many others in the arts who dig Vedantic philosophy and Quantum Physics, this Unified Field is where creative ideas come from, and with T.M. you can access this field directly.
When I first watched Episode 8, I had no idea what was happening. After I learned the Transcendental Meditation technique, I thought, Oh, so that’s what that was, but what that is exactly, I will not say. You will have to find this out for yourself.
6. Read The Upanishads and other Vedic literature, such as the Bhagavad Gita, and take notes.
Clues to Twin Peaks abound in The Upanishads, if you know where to look. I myself am convinced that “The Fireman” of Twin Peaks: The Return is representative of the Hindu god Agni, but because I am not a Vedic expert any more than I am a physicist I am going to refrain from expounding further on that, but just like with the previous point, if you want to better understand Vedic literature in order to dig at what Lynch is getting at, you should learn the T.M. technique before you read these books.
Here’s a clue for you: “Shvetashvatara” is the title of one Upanishad and translates to “the one carrying beyond on white horse.” Remember the line from the dark mantra in Episode 8: “the horse is the white of the eyes and dark within …”?
If you want to find the metaphors and symbolism in Lynch’s work, don’t look for it in Americana. Look for it in the Vedas.
7. Read Martha Nochimson’s books about David Lynch’s work and take notes.
To balance the material against the mystic, read Martha Nochimson’s books about Lynch. She’s the foremost Lynch scholar and has dedicated a great deal of her professional life to unpacking Lynch’s boxes.
Her books The Passion of David Lynch, David Lynch Swerves, and Television Rewired will equip you with an academic-level vocabulary with which to approach Lynch’s work from the perspective of film theory and deconstruction. These are must-haves to arm yourself against the many misinformed criticisms of his work, such as the constant accusations of misogyny and deviance he has received over the years. Portraying violence, after all, is not an endorsement of that violence on behalf of a filmmaker who is simply telling a story.
8. Read Lynch on Lynch and scour YouTube for David Lynch interviews
David is well-known for not explaining his work, which is frustrating to a lot of people, but there’s a good reason for this, of course. A few, actually. Foremost among them is that, as a creator or artist, you don’t want to ruin someone else’s experience of your work by explaining what it means to you, to them. That robs them of their own experience, and the meaning they can make for themselves out of your work, which is why you made it in the first place, right? To be received by an audience? So, why spoil that reception?
Luckily for you, before he figured out to keep his mouth shut about certain things, Lynch has let some things slip from time to time about his films in interviews. You can find some of this stuff on YouTube. The best book I’ve found is Lynch on Lynch.
9. Take David Lynch’s MasterClass on Filmmaking
Having graduated the David Lynch Graduate School of Cinematic Arts MFA in Screenwriting program, I can say that one of the most informative experiences during my two years at MIU was learning from the man directly about creativity and film, but this option obviously isn’t available to everyone.
What is available to everyone is David Lynch’s MasterClass on Creativity and Film, which you can get here for $15 a month. Learning how to do what Lynch himself does will give you a better understanding of why he does what he does.
10. Watch all of Lynch’s films again, and this time (yep, you guessed it!) take notes, and this time go ahead and watch The Elephant Man and Dune.
The reason why I am having you write down so many notes is because, when we write things down, we remember them better. So, after you’ve gotten your little notebook packed full of notes about Lynch’s films, Lynch’s books, Vedantic philosophy, film criticism, and so on and so forth, by the time you get back for that second round of watching, you’re going to have a much better idea of how everything ticks, and once you make it through again you are going to have an informed, relevant, and impressive understanding of the cinematic world and work of David Keith Lynch.
There you have it! It may take some time to get there, and a little money, but just like waiting for David Lynch’s next project, in the end, it’ll be worth it.
Jesse Valencia is the author of Keep Music Evil: The Brian Jonestown Massacre Story, published by Jawbone Press.