The Remarkable Influence of David Lynch

The legendary director will be back on television next year, returning to a genre he helped transform.

Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

It would be tough to look at the roster of television shows any given season without finding several that owe a creative debt to Twin Peaks, the short-lived ABC series created by the filmmaker David Lynch. Lynch’s manipulation of the uncanny, his surreal non-sequiturs, his black humor, and his trademark ominous tracking shots can be felt in a variety of contemporary hit shows, from The Sopranos to Lost, even if few manage to combine all these elements to such hypnotic effect. Twin Peaks, which was canceled 25 years ago, has often been cited as a major influence on today’s era of binge-worthy, auteur-driven dramas. So when its revival airs in early 2017, Lynch will be returning to a television landscape that has evolved largely in his image.

And yet that show, with its heady and immersive storytelling, is just one chapter in the story of how Lynch—who turned 70 this week—cemented his status as one of the most influential American auteurs in the last quarter century. To fully understand how Lynch shaped modern film and TV, it’s worth studying three of his most iconic films, Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and Mulholland Drive: works that paved the way for everything from the body-horror genre and TV’s female antiheroes to suburban dystopias and bingeable, serial storytelling. Made over the span of 25 years, these films track the evolution of Lynch’s particular sensibility—one that both celebrates American culture and holds a funhouse mirror up to it, forcing viewers to question their own values and sense of reality.

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Lynch’s first full-length feature, which is in part about the paralyzing fears of child-rearing, could be described as both a difficult birth and a labor of love. After five years of erratic production schedules and troubled financing, Eraserhead reached the midnight-movie circuit in 1977, where it gradually won a cult following. The film focuses on the strange and banal Henry Spencer as he discovers that his on-off girlfriend is pregnant. Once the baby is born, the film descends into a Kafkaesque nightmare rife with humor and despair. With the help of a malevolent-sounding ambient soundtrack, Eraserhead builds a dystopian landscape that mirrors Spencer’s fraught relationship with everyone and everything around him.

Among Eraserhead’s many admirers was none other than Stanley Kubrick, who appropriated a great deal from Lynch’s film for his own horror masterpiece, 1980’s The Shining. The latter uses the same relentless background noise and lingering shots to build a sense of dread that eventually crescendos into a fever dream of madness. Even The Shining’s famous “Room 237” is a not-so-subtle allusion to Spencer’s sultry neighbor’s apartment room 27. In The Shining as in Eraserhead, sex masquerades as an escape but ultimately propels its central character further into his downward spiral.

Beyond its outsize impact on The Shining, Eraserhead may also be responsible for an entire subgenre: body horror, which focuses on the deterioration of the body by showing it in various states of decay or mutilation. In its visceral investigation into the anxieties of caring for a newborn, Eraserhead was one of the first films to portray the human body as something frightening and repellent, not to be nurtured but rather feared. Spencer’s vile offspring is only the most overt instance of body horror in the film; the title, after all, alludes to a dream sequence in which Spencer is decapitated and his head is used to create erasers at a pencil factory. This simultaneous fascination and repulsion with the human body and its infinite variety of deconstructions would go on to inform the work of David Cronenberg and Clive Barker in films like The Fly, Videodrome, and Hellraiser.

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Coming on the heels of Lynch’s infamous commercial flop, Dune, 1986’s Blue Velvet marked the director's return to personal, idiosyncratic storytelling. Telling the story of a clean-cut college kid (Kyle MacLachlan) who slips ever deeper into the sadistic underbelly of his sleepy North Carolina town, Blue Velvet received the kind of wildly polarizing reception reserved only for the most provocative films. The film was immediately derided by many as filthy and misogynistic (nuns from the actress Isabella Rossellini’s Catholic high school called her to let her know they were praying for her daily). Meanwhile, several critics, including Rolling Stone’s Peter Travers, called it the best film of the decade.

Blue Velvet’s influence is perhaps most apparent in the films of Quentin Tarantino. The director picked up on how Blue Velvet not only stylized violence but created a new tone for it—one that was as fascinated with the minutiae surrounding perverse lives as it was in the brutal acts themselves. The infamous scene in Reservoir Dogs in which Michael Madsen’s Mr. Blonde cuts off a kidnapped cop’s ear while listening to K-Billy’s Super Sounds of the ’70s is a not-especially-subtle nod to the ear discovered early in Lynch’s film.

Reservoir Dogs and to an even greater extent Pulp Fiction intersperse their grisly set pieces with amusingly mundane dialogue, visual riddles, and hints at fetishism. Pulp Fiction’s infamous pawn-shop scene is a jolting play on the seedy-underbelly motif so thoroughly explored in Lynch’s Blue Velvet. Much like with Lynch, Tarantino’s early films are so compulsively watchable because all the subversive behavior takes place in a landscape of cultural conformity. With its Flintstones and Speed Racer T-Shirts and ’50s film posters, Pulp Fiction serves up the life of crime garnished with beloved artifacts of American culture. If this responsiveness to—and playful attitude toward—popular culture seems ideally primed for television, then it’s only fitting that Tarantino recently said he’d consider making a TV series as his next project.

Most importantly, Blue Velvet changed the way both directors and audiences think about small-town American life. The unassuming setting of suburbia and the atmosphere of film noir, once worlds apart, became inextricable after the movie’s release. The synthesis has influenced the work of the Coen Brothers (most notably Fargo, which later spawned an acclaimed anthology TV series), cerebral crime films like Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, and even shows like Mad Men, The Fall, and Bates Motel. In its own way, Blue Velvet rewrote the American mythos, pointing to the depravity that lurks behind idyllic picket fences.

This “interactive” subtext, in which Lynch’s work entices viewers to question their own desires and moral compasses, is part of what makes the possibilities for the upcoming Twin Peaks so exciting. With television arguably serving as today’s dominant medium for carving America’s self-image, Lynch is returning to a platform more well-suited than ever to his penchant for toying with the zeitgeist.

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In 2001, 15 years after Blue Velvet and a decade after Twin Peaks, Lynch made what many consider to be his masterpiece. Mulholland Drive was originally conceived as a TV series for ABC in 1999 and was intended to be the director’s triumphant reappearance on television. But after fighting over creative control with network executives, Lynch finally decided to wrench Mulholland Drive back into his own hands and turn it into a film. The result is a celluloid sphinx of a movie—a Hollywood noir that’s exquisite and menacing and that does away with the dualism of light and dark Lynch explored in Blue Velvet and Eraserhead in favor of a more sophisticated dynamic. The morbid tone and moral ambiguity of the film lives on today in shows like True Detective, The Knick, and The Leftovers, all of which draw from the same well of existential confusion and disturbed protagonists.

Capturing Lynch’s puzzle-box structure is a feat most filmmakers have wisely chosen to stay away from. Instead, Mulholland Drive has been most significant as a psychological thriller that put an intricate, tortured female character at its core, while reinventing the old hierarchies of noir stories. Because the entire story is organized as layers of Selwyn’s memory and personality, Mulholland Drive expanded the possibilities for how psychologically complex women on screen could be. It also demolished trite conventions for female characters: Naomi Watts and Laura Harring, initially cast as a Hollywood naïf and a damsel in distress, thoroughly dismantle those archetypes by the film’s end. Watts’ Selwyn set the stage for characters like Nina in Black Swan, Justine in Melancholia, and even Jessica Jones of Netflix’s TV series.

Mulholland Drive was one of the first R-rated rabbit holes, a genre that’s gained significant purchase in the age of Netflix binge-watching. As James Poniewozik observed in a recent piece for The New York Times, Netflix and Amazon shows that drop full seasons at once and cater to immersive viewing are actually contributing to a different medium of visual storytelling. Longer than movies, denser than typical TV shows, series like Sense8 demands that viewers surrender completely to the show’s world and logic. Poniewozik’s description of this emerging form—hypnotic, enveloping, novelistic—sounds a lot like a Lynch film, but not so much like the movie industry anymore, which makes it easier perhaps to track Lynch’s influence in modern television.

At a time when theaters are primarily filled with remakes or sequels (or prequels), it’s no wonder television has emerged as a viable challenge to film’s aesthetic dominance. Even if some still maintain that TV isn’t “better” than film, the small screen’s fare in recent years has convinced many that cinema isn’t where most experimentation, risk-taking, and efforts to stay culturally relevant are happening. If Lynch had tried to Mulholland Drive as a TV show today, most likely he would have succeeded. It’s hard to think of a better time, then, for a Twin Peaks revival, and for the master of audacious and strange storytelling to return.