A damn fine retrospective

Chicago’s Music Box Theatre (where I saw Donnie Darko) is running a great retrospective on the films of David Lynch. I’ve taken the opportunity to re-watch Mulholland Drive and Blue Velvet and watch, for the first time, The Straight Story. (There is also a ton of other Lynch-related material on offer including short films, interviews and documentaries – ranging from interesting and illuminating to just weird.)

For me, seeing these productions on 35mm is a reminder that watching a great movie on the big screen is not just better than watching it on your TV – it’s a totally different experience. I would compare it to listening to a symphony in a concert hall vs. on a cassette tape. There’s that much of a gap. (I noticed this most dramatically when watching 2001: A Space Odyssey on the big screen for the first time in college.)

Visually, Lynch’s movies – and I’m thinking especially of Blue Velvet – have a rawness and richness of texture on the big screen that’s entirely absent when you watch them on your TV or tablet or whatever. Then there’s the communal aspect of enjoying the movie with a large audience (the Music Box was surprisingly crowded every time I went). Among other things, it made the humor more funny. Lynch’s movies are filled with moments of deadpan comedy that had the audience laughing out loud.

Lynch is most compelling, to me, when his weirdness is constrained by a narrative that’s at least semi-coherent. Blue Velvet achieves the perfect balance of surrealism and narrative logic; all the Lynchian weirdness is wrapped up in a story that “makes sense” and is, in its outlines, a pretty conventional detective yarn. We are taking a trip through a nightmare-world, but the story acts as the emotional engine that gets us through safely.

Mulholland Drive is also a great movie, but it goes further than Blue Velvet in pushing the boundaries of narrative coherence, without quite flying off the rails into total incomprehensibility. Things get really weird towards the end, but the movie keeps our attention and demands that we try to puzzle out what the hell just happened. It’s a powerful and beautiful experience.

I haven’t seen Lost Highway for a long time, but I remember it being a total disaster of a movie, and this had to do with its over-the-top horror and surrealism with no discernible storyline or emotional hook for the audience. I also recall not liking Wild at Heart very much, though there were some scenes that stayed with me.

Lynch is famous for dredging up images and ideas from the murky depths of the unconscious. This only “works” if the stuff that’s dredged up is hammered into a coherent shape that the viewer can understand and relate to. Otherwise, it’s just annoying self-indulgence on the director’s part, like when someone tells you about the crazy dream they had last night.

The Straight Story is way on the opposite end of the spectrum. Lynch’s most “conventional” film (along with The Elephant Man), it’s perfectly coherent in terms of plot and writing. Most people wouldn’t suspect it was a Lynch movie at all if his name weren’t in the credits. Despite this, the movie has an unsettling quality that I can’t quite put my finger on. I would describe it as “Lynchian” and leave it at that.

The Straight Story hit me like an emotional freight train. I would recommend it to anyone who is inclined to dismiss Lynch as a weirdo or a sicko. Well, he may be those things too, but he can certainly make a damn fine movie. (And cup of coffee too, apparently.)

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