An Alternate History of American Movies 1971 – 2017

Pre-history

You need to know that David Keith Lynch was born in early 1946 and George Walton Lucas Jr. was born in mid-1944. They are peers in both a general sense, having been born around the same time, and in a professional sense, coming to prominence as directors in the 1970s with a group of other filmmakers that includes Steven Spielberg and Francis Ford Coppola (indeed, Lucas is close-personal-friends with both of these men, and Lynchthis will come up latercircles around this group in his early career). Separated as their births are by the war crimes committed at Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Lynch’s recent work illuminates this atrocity as a founding one for his art and for the modern world), the two directors offer radically different types of cinema.

It is one thing to talk about an artist having peers—everyone has peers in one sense or another—but what makes these two unique is the ways in which they are peerless. Lynch, having “come from out of nowhere, from elsewhere” as Dennis Lim puts it in his recent book on the director, strikes me as peerless in an artistic sense: His style of filmmaking doesn’t quite come from absolutely nothing, but only just quite. Each decade of his work yields radically different kinds of film which all contain his indefinable stamp, as it were; even detractors would have a hard time naming a decade that did not offer at least one influential or iconic work. (And well now, I’m not gonna talk about Lynchian. In fact, we’re not gonna talk about Lynchian at all, we’re gonna keep that out of it.) It has also become something of a consensus that his short-running TV show is the dark underground lake from which our current glut of television sprang.

Lucas, on the other hand, has only a handful of director credits to his name (unlike most of his peers) and there is the whole business of starting one of the most successful and profitable movie franchises of all time; setting the template for the American blockbuster over the past four decades; and, by returning to the director’s chair after more than 20 years of absence, unintentionally teaching an entire generation about the perils of nostalgia.

It would be difficult to name two popular artists that have had as much influence on our visual culture over the past 40 years as these two.

Personal Note I

The first director whose name I knew and whose name I knew as having directed a film, that is to say, having made it, and indeed the person who, inadvertently, introduced to me the idea of a film as having been made by a person or groups of persons at all and not an anonymous corporate entity (though, on this point, things are much more complicated than my 4- or 5- or 6-year-old understanding of the world could grasp) was George Lucas.

Personal Note II

As formative as the experience of understanding, for the first time, what a director did, more formative, perhaps, was my first viewing of Lynch’s Eraserhead when I was, let’s say, 16 (coming, luckily, on the heels of experiencing Maya Deren’s Meshes of the Afternoon, which is not really relevant other than to say, please go watch Meshes of the Afternoon as I think it places Lynch in an important context and tradition that should not be forgotten as we consider his work and I am sorry to get off-topic, but I could not find a better place in the essay to put this). Lynch’s film opened my eyes to the possibilities of what a film could be. So you can see why I’ve personally placed them together in this context as something between a dare to myself and a serious consideration of the two filmmakers.

A Point of Convergence

Comparing Lucas and Lynch may not seem an obvious thing to do. Lucas’ third film, Star Wars, made over $700 million in 1977, conquering the yearly box office by a healthy margin. That same year, Lynch’s first film, Eraserhead, made a mere $7 million playing mostly as a midnight movie. Though, if one factors in its meager budget, Eraserhead was a financial success almost comparable to that of Star Wars. If one considers that Lynch spent half a decade making it, that Eraserhead was finished and in a theater at all is as much a miracle as the fact that Star Wars did not, as many predicted, go down in history as an enormous failure.

The two films share a handmade quality that marks them as labors of affection (though with very different payoffs). The independent roots of Lynch and Lucas are held in common, and 1977 is the last year where that spirit of defiance and go-my-own-way-ness is evident in both of their work. It is obvious in the dressed-up fireworks of Star Wars’s trench explosions and in Eraserhead’s nightmare-child. Both directors fought hard for their respective visions, battling studios and financiers (in other words, doubters) in order to bring their long-held visions to life.

Parallel Beginnings

Allow me to go back for a moment and consider these directors’ first three features side-by-side:

THX 1138 (1971) and Eraserhead (1977)

Lucas’ debut feature is essentially a loose adaption of 1984—foreshadowing his penchant for using established forms as the girding for his films. It’s a slicker and slightly more expensive than Eraserhead, but is invested with a similar psychological energy and, despite its dark premise, ends triumphantly. Both films use their (relative to the directors’ later works) small budgets to maximum advantage: focusing on the central performances and developing a particular sense of atmosphere (though, much like he infamously “re-mastered” the Star Wars films, Lucas revisited THX in the mid ‘00s and slapped on some dissonant CGI backgrounds and establishing shots which diminish the empty, sterile feeling of the film).

American Graffiti (1973) and The Elephant Man (1980)

Each director’s debut feature resulted in him moving to a more conventional second film. Producer Mel Brooks gave the untested Lynch an enormous amount of latitude with The Elephant Man, and the results led to Oscar nominations. Lucas’ American Graffiti was backed, like his first feature, by his friend Coppola, and also received an Oscar nomination. Unlike Lynch’s film, it was enormously successful on a financial level, making Lucas a small fortune from which he could finance his long-gestating space opera project. This is not to say that Lynch was considered a failure by the time The Elephant Man had lost at the Oscars. On the contrary, it was his first breach into the public consciousness and gave him the kind of legitimacy, as an artist, that had producers and studios asking to work with him over the next few years.

In fact, if you associate Lynch and Lucas at all, it is probably due to one particular story that makes its way around the internet every few years or so. That is, that Lynch was asked to direct the (at the time) third installment in the Star Wars franchise. But I am going to let him tell it himself:

This offer, declined though it was, came around the same time Lynch was trying to finance what he hoped would be his follow-up to The Elephant Man: the still-unfilmed Ronnie Rocket. Coppola’s American Zoetrope was involved, but had to pull out after the financial failure of One from the Heart forced the studio to declare bankruptcy. As a result, Lynch’s third film, unlike Lucas’, would be a project over which he had very little control. The experience would prove no less formative, however.

Star Wars (1977) and Dune (1984)

The third films from Lucas and Lynch have some important things in common. They involved a large portion of the crew wasting away in the desert uncertain whether the whole enterprise would pay off. They employed August actors in what were sure to be thankless roles. They were delayed and recut at the last minute and were almost-certain-to-be failures on both a financial and critical level.

Of course, one of these films ended up being Star Wars and the other ended up being a film that the average person is more likely to know as a failed imitator of Star Wars than as a work by an emerging auteur. This is unfair to Dune and most especially to David Lynch. He recognizes it as a failure, but a decisive one. Without final cut, he realized too late that his name would be on a work he did not fully recognize as his own.

It has been a hobby of the internet to imagine what Lynch’s Return of the Jedi would have looked like, but I think it’s more interesting to think about what Lucas’ and Lynch’s art would have become had the fates of Dune and Star Wars been flipped. After Dune, Lynch refocused and has pretty much stuck to small projects over which he has near-absolute control. After Star Wars, Lucas didn’t direct another film until 1999, when he returned to the series. What if Dune had succeeded? It is unlikely we would have gotten Blue Velvet, or Twin Peaks. Lynch would have spent the next few years working on a sequel, maybe more than one. But maybe Ronnie Rocket gets made after that. And if Star Wars had failed? Lucas may have returned to smaller, more personal films—a register at which, I think, he works well as a director.

Instead, Lucas transformed into a super-producer and Lynch had to wait for his fame, which started sometime after Blue Velvet (1986) and ended sometime before Fire Walk With Me (1992). One would like to imagine an outcome in which Lynch’s period of fame was coupled, like Lucas’, with the amassing of enormous wealth (though Lynch seems more than fine, financially, it must be said), but this is not the world we live in. And anyway, such a world would have unguessed-at consequences. I cannot say for sure whether it is merchandising rights which truly arrested Lucas as a filmmaker any more than I can say that it is the failure of Dune, as both commercial product and product of Lynch’s prodigious imagination, that led to three decades of audacious filmmaking.

An Interruption

Here is a picture of Lynch and Lucas’ faces merged together for no particular reason other than I thought it would be funny/interesting:

It is strange though, because I had not considered the more or less superficial resemblance of the two men until thinking about this piece. The grey coifs (Lynch’s more iconic, to be sure, but nevertheless); the slight bulge in the middle (which Lucas does not bother hiding); the diminutive voices, coming through the nose, faltering, almost flickering when they consider their own work (Lucas is defensive, Lynch is reticent and purposefully vaguemaybe a kind of defense as well) and flashed with enthusiasm when they speak about the artists they admire.

There are differences, of course. Lynch is much taller and has worse teeth.

Divergent Returns

Like Lucas did almost 20 years ago, Lynch has returned to his most widely beloved creation. As of this moment, the two men sit on opposite ends of the 21st century trend of return. Unsurprisingly, both offer unconventional takes.

Star Wars was a profitable business when Lucas began releasing prequel films in 1999. Books and comics and toys had kept the franchise in people’s minds and expanded the universe beyond the narrow margins of the original trilogy during its 15-year absence from the screen. The future of Lucas’ world of the dark side and the light, of the Jedi Knights, of the Skywalker clan, had been written for him. It would have been hard to excuse him for simply plucking out the best bits and getting the band back together. What he chose to do was different and, at least on paper, more interesting: Lucas went backwards.

Instead of the Jungian myths by-way-of Buck Rogers that comprised the original films, Lucas tried to paint a grand moral drama of how heroes become villains; a children’s film by-way-of D.W. Griffith. The familiar faces are few. The familiar places are almost entirely absent. With all the technology at Lucas’ fingertips he built an entirely new galaxy from the ground up. Where before there was the simple conflict of the Rebels and the Empire, now he gave us intractable trade disputes and Machiavellian galactic politics. The saber-fighting is still there, but the thudding intensity is replaced by balletic swordsmanship. The archetypes, too, are present: the chosen one, the mentor, the fool. Despite all of this, it is hard not to get the impression that Lucas is trying to explain himself, to explain his story and give it a scale which time and technology had not allowed him to accomplish before. Hence midichlorians. Hence the banal power politics. Lucas fails his own grand vision because he lacks the audacity to fully complicate the model that is Star Wars. He hedges his bets at every turn—never letting us forget where all of this is headed. As the prequels go on, and perhaps in response to the mostly undeserved backlash to The Phantom Menace, Lucas introduces more and more familiar elements, explaining or dramatizing whole minor, tossed-off lines from the original trilogy (a trend which the recent sans-Lucas Rogue One takes to an absurd extreme). In short, he eliminates the mystery of the past and, by the end, puts everything in its place: right where we find it at the beginning of Star Wars.

Lynch’s return to Twin Peaks could have been like this. Especially considering how the past 20 years of reboots and revivals have solidified many of the tropes that Lucas first visited onto us: bathetic call-backs (or call-forwards), nostalgic interludes, incongruous technological advances, needless explanations. And Lynch, too has a moral universe to uphold, a spiritual conflict to be resolved. The Black Lodge and the White Lodge are more bizarre and mysterious than the faux-zen of the Force, and more terrifying—but they suggest, just the same, a cosmic war being waged in a world parallel to, and ultimately intruding on, the characters’ lives. Lynch, in Twin Peaks, gave us heroes and villains. But he did himself a favor that Lucas never did. Lynch, even when it comes to Boy Scout FBI agent Dale Cooper, could not help but paint with a perversely grey brush, as evidenced by the end of the original series’s run.

Lynch is, in contrast with Lucas, a Freudian. Or, at least, he is not a Freudian so much as his work lends itself to Freudian frameworks of understanding. That is to say, Lynch thrives when he leaves things unexplained and allows the waters of the viewers’ subconscious to be troubled by the mystery long after the screen has cut to black. In Twin Peaks: The Return, Lynch aims for some of the same things Lucas seemingly was. He wants to explore new things. He wants to expand the universe he helped create more than 25 years ago. Lynch, so far, has given us a window onto many of the old characters, but he’s warped them, or slowed them down, or rendered them nearly unrecognizable. And, importantly, they are old now and Lynch does not shy away from the fact of their mortality. Lynch cannot resist the feeling of pleasure followed by pain that comes when we see something familiar, something we have been comfortable with, left to the ravages of time. Lynch knows nostalgia is no salve; it’s a poison. As such, he has no issue muddying the waters, expanding the number of questions rather than reducing them, as Lucas chose to do. Lynch wants us to have new pleasures (and pains)—Lucas cannot help but fall back on the old ones.

But, once again, the roles are maintained. Lynch’s return to Twin Peaks is an artistic coup, as bizarre and magnetic a TV show in 2017 as it was in 1990, and a better one, quite frankly, for Lynch’s increased control over it. Despite this (or maybe because of it), the show does not appear to be a financial success for the network. This is the reverse of Lucas’ return to his iconic world: A mix of interesting-but-failed experiments that nevertheless brought in billions of dollars.

Lucas’ inability to stop explaining things and Lynch’s inability to stop giving us new things to explain; I do not think it is a stretch to say the former is the dominant cinema of the day (Lucas’ continued financial success and Lynch’s difficulty in finding financing are testament to this), but it does not have to be. Perhaps, had the lives of these two men gone differently, we would be awash in a stranger, more inexplicable type of American movie. The luck of timing and the fickle, cruel nature of markets has determined this for us. The explicable has its pleasures, to be sure, but it is not the inevitable end of popular cinema. Deep, strange, daring cinema tends to stay with us long after the box office receipts have been thrown away.  Lucas and Lynch are both revolutionary filmmakers in their own way, but I have a feeling that, 100 years from now, there will only be one whose visions, both strange and wonderful, will not have dimmed.