David Lynch’s Search for Meaning

illustration by Brianna Ashby



Infinite Jest is a hard book to pin down. David Foster Wallace’s 1996 opus has dozens of characters and at least as many plot lines, but one of its most constant subjects is the theoretical mode of filmmaking practiced by James O. Incandenza, the deceased father of Hal, one of the main characters. James’ films, many of them abstract past the point of understanding, champion what he calls the “après-garde.” They grow increasingly obtuse and alienating as he ages, and he finds himself more artistically fulfilled even as his audience dwindles. His work is “anticonfluential cinema,” which is “characterized by a stubborn and possibly irrationally irritating refusal of different narrative lines to merge into any kind of meaningful confluence.” On a broader level, James’ storytelling technique is itself born out in Wallace’s novel, which slides back and forth in time, changes narrators on a whim, and purposely strands the reader in deep waters, refusing to create any kind of traditional linear plot.

Yet it’s worth noting that, within the novel’s fictive universe, the imagined critics who disparage anticonfluential cinema as lacking “any kind of meaningful confluence” tend to misjudge James’ films. It’s not that anticonfluential cinema lacks meaning or resolution: it’s that that meaning and resolution are so profoundly different from what audiences have been trained to expect, you can hardly fault viewers for missing them. In anticonfluential cinema, the audience member becomes an active third party, involved in every conversation or interaction between two characters. Just by knowing what you do as a viewer, you can shift the meaning of what’s happening. You fill in missing pieces, come to conclusions, and know more than any one character ever could.  

If this sounds familiar, like it has a real-world antecedent, I submit that you are not wrong: of all those making filmed entertainments like this, America’s David Keith Lynch might be the most prominent, the most powerful, the most special.




Lynch’s work reflects a man fencing with his audience. Appropriately enough, another Wallace quote applies here. In 1993, when asked how his own occasional hostility toward readers manifested itself, Wallace answered, in part, by “devoting a lot of energy in creating expectations and then taking pleasure in disappointing them.” That’s a good to way to describe Lynch’s work, both in the effect the films have on the viewer and the mindset that drives them.

You can very roughly group Lynch’s work into two eras: early and later. Early Lynch includes Eraserhead (1977), The Elephant Man (1980), Dune (1984), Blue Velvet (1986), and Wild at Heart (1990). These are films of varying levels of artistic worth, aesthetic challenge, and viewing pleasure. Dune is objectively terrible; an earnest mess very clearly done in by its director’s lack of investment in the material and the studio’s nervousness about unleashing what was originally a three-hour sci-fi melodrama on audiences who had already voiced a clear preference for Beverly Hills Cop and Ghostbusters. But the others mostly move along from A to B to C, and for all their dreamlike, surreal imagery and tone, their narratives cohere.

Take Blue Velvet. The story of young Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) and his descent into the psychosexual world of a lounge singer (Isabella Rossellini) is filled with now iconically Lynchian motifs: the juxtaposition of the mundane and the macabre, the recycling and perversion of mid-century American pop songs as the slimy underbelly of Rockwellian existence, eroticism as a mask for identity, abstract violence, arresting imagery. But you can describe the plot pretty succinctly if you need to: a young man stumbles onto a murder case and gets caught up with the suspects. There’s a linearity involved, a sense of defined causality, that makes early Lynch films primarily about the eeriness of their subject matter.

This changes in later Lynch films, beginning with 1992’s Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, the prequel to the TV series Twin Peaks, which (originally) ended in 1991. It cannot be overstated how important Twin Peaks and Fire Walk With Me are to the development of Lynch’s style and as an indication of where he intended to take his art and career.

Twin Peaks was many things—a soap opera, a meta-soap-opera, an investigation into the secrets of just another quiet little neighborhood—but it was also some of the most daring filmmaking Lynch had done to date. While there’s nothing particularly compelling about the pilot or even the second episode (they’re shot and carried out with a kind of workmanlike approach reflective of the episodic dramas of the time), it’s the six-minute scene that caps the third episode—the red-curtained, backward-talking dream of FBI Agent Dale Cooper (MacLachlan)—that turned the show into something special and changed the course of pop culture and Lynch’s career. It’s a beautiful, horrifying, riveting experience that blends lighting, sound, voice, imagery, and special filmmaking techniques to create something genuinely dreamlike and unsettling. It is thoroughly anticonfluential in its aims and execution. It isn’t about providing insight (in a wonderful thumb in the viewer’s eye, Cooper wakes up and realizes he knows who killed town beauty Laura Palmer, but he goes back to sleep and forgets by morning) or even about providing pieces of a puzzle for viewers to attempt to put together. It is, simply, about using a special amalgam of sight and sound to convey a very specific set of feelings; namely dread, curiosity, and wonder. More scenes throughout the series’s run had similar style and effect, notably in the back half of its second season, but there will only ever be one first impression of what’s really happening in Lynch’s vision of Twin Peaks, and it’s Cooper’s haunting dream.

Fire Walk With Me makes the TV series look like a Dr. Seuss story. It is aggressively challenging and obfuscating, and on the heels of the success of a TV series that ended on a cliffhanger it refused to provide any sense of closure or predictability. It didn’t even bring back the stars of the show. (MacLachlan appears in a few scenes; Sherilyn Fenn is absent; Lara Flynn Boyle is replaced by Moira Kelly.) What’s more, the first half hour of the film doesn’t deal with the events in the fictional town of Twin Peaks, but follows the related investigations of another FBI agent we’ve never seen before and (at least so far) have never seen again. Lynch’s delight in doing something unexpected, vague, scattered, and narratively obtuse is almost palpable here. Even the dream sequences and flashbacks are more hallucinatory and frightening than the ones in the series, like the nightmarish scene where FBI Agent Phillip Jeffries (David Bowie) appears out of thin air in front of his colleagues and tells them about visiting a decaying room above a convenience store where the physical manifestations of a variety of spirits occasionally feast on something called garmonbozia, which loosely translates to “pain and suffering” and looks like creamed corn. This is where Lynch’s anticonfluential desires make themselves known in giant neon letters: he is interested here fully and only in putting on film the images he sees in his head. The degree to which this forms a coherent narrative that functions on a plot level, and not just a general emotional one, is both up to each viewer and clearly not something Lynch seems overly concerned with.

This sense of willful obfuscation, of visual experimentation, and most importantly, of crafting stories whose meaning is found in the viewer’s experience of watching and assembling, is the hallmark of later Lynch, especially 1997’s Lost Highway, 2001’s Mulholland Drive, and 2006’s Inland Empire. These are, bluntly, really weird and fragmented films. Lost Highway is about a man who goes to prison for murdering his wife, morphs into someone else, and is then released and starts having an affair with a woman identical to the murdered wife. Mulholland Drive is about an aspiring actress, who hires a hitman to kill her former lover, another actress, then kills herself over grief for what she’s done. Somewhere in there, she dreams an entire alternate universe in which she and her love can be together, a dream that makes up most of the movie. Inland Empire is about an actress whose reality starts to come undone (that’s the short version).

The thematic similarities are apparent. All three deal with the blurred line between reality and fantasy, and all three feature main characters in the entertainment industry. (Lost Highway involves a porn producer, jazz music, and Robert Blake.) They are as anticonfluential as anything Lynch has done. That Mulholland Drive hangs together as well as it does is somewhat of a miracle, given that it started as a pilot for ABC, only to be rejected by the network and turned into a feature. Lynch shot more material, expanded the story, and found what needed to be there all along. The summary in the previous paragraph is mostly accurate and probably reliable, but it’s also staggeringly reductive and does the film itself a gross disservice. There is no perfect resolution here, and even watching Mulholland Drive repeatedly leaves you feeling like you achieve one moment of total understanding, only for that feeling to fade as the credits roll. It’s a masterpiece, not just for the way it’s put together, but for the way that assembly purposely leaves gaps in its material to be filled by the viewer.

For instance, part of the dreamlike portion of Mulholland Drive involves a mysterious blue box and a key that opens it. In his book Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity, Lynch himself says “I don’t have a clue what those are.” Is he being coy, or honest? More importantly, does it matter?

After Inland Empire in 2006, Lynch stopped working in Hollywood for a while. He kept painting, but he didn’t make another movie. (As of this writing, he still hasn’t.) He broke his silence earlier this year, though, with the return of Twin Peaks. The series was reborn 25 years after Lynch had last chronicled the doomed world of Laura Palmer and those who knew her, and it’s Lynch’s most experimental and anticonfluential work so far. Individual scenes are completely understandable—people chatting over a beer, cops investigating a lead, etc.—but their place in the big picture is almost never evident on first viewing. Even the scenes that take place on some other dimension of existence might be explainable in the moment (“that man is talking to Cooper”) but not beyond that (“I have no idea who that man is, or where they are, or if that’s even a man”). Like that of Wallace’s tormented filmmaker, Lynch’s work is becoming more visually obtuse and challenging as he ages, even as, on some level, it becomes more emotionally resonant. That’s where Lynch works: down below words, in shades of feeling.

Because that’s what Lynch’s work is really about. It’s not obtuse for the sake of it, nor designed to be an unsolvable puzzle box. Rather, his movies and TV series are crafted to lead the viewer on a journey that’s just as emotional as it is narrative (if not far more so), and designed so that the viewer’s intuition stitches together the disparate plot threads. To call Lynch challenging isn’t inaccurate, but it’s missing the point, just as it’s fair but incomplete to label his films confusing. The true sense of watching a Lynch film is a triangulation between Lynch, the work, and you, beams of light passing between the three corners, illuminating something that wasn’t there before and that no one else can see.