To celebrate the long-awaited return of Twin Peaks on May 21st– some 25+ years since the show ended (and a period of time which should hold some obvious significance to fans)- we take a look at David Lynch’s work as a director in all of its glorious splendor. I have chosen to focus on films and TV shows only, so commercials and music videos will not be addressed. I do, however, highly recommend die-hard fans to seek them out, as they are also all worth seeing.
You can find a compendium of David Lynch’s commercials here on YouTube, as well as a playlist for the music videos he directed here. Finally, he directed a concert video for the classic New Wave band Duran Duran, entitled Unstaged, which is readily available online and on home video. You can see some clips and behind-the-scenes stuff for that here. For a comprehensive list of literally everything, go here.
Full disclosure right up front: David Lynch is my favorite director of all-time. Several of his movies rank among my all-time favorites, and the soon-to-return Twin Peaks flat-out is my all-time favorite show. So, this isn’t so much a list of worst-to-best, as it is a list of what I like least to what I like most. But, in fact, I actually do like every last bit of it, when all’s said and done.
So, without further ado: Let’s Rock! (Stay turned for Part Two, coming soon!)
7. On the Air (1991-92)
One of David Lynch’s least-known efforts, On the Air was a TV show that only aired for three episodes in the US, though all seven episodes were shown overseas. However, thanks once again to the glories of YouTube, the entire series is readily available, at least at the time of this article’s writing.
It revolves around the production of a live variety show for a fictional network, ZBC, and various goings-on behind the scenes of the oft-troubled show. In terms of the premise, that makes it a good bit ahead of its time, coming long before 30 Rock or the similarly short-lived Aaron Sorkin dramedy Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. Hell, it even beat the much-lauded The Larry Sanders Show to the punch by the skin of its teeth, premiering in June of ’92 vs. that show’s August of ’92.
Be that as it may, the sad truth of the matter is that it’s not all that great. All the elements are in place, from a fun premise to a great cast, including Twin Peaks stars Ian Buchanan, Miguel Ferrer and David Lander, and it featured episodes directed by other Peaks alumni like Lesli Linka Glatter and Jonathan Sanger, as well as Lynch himself, who directed the pilot episode. However, the show itself doesn’t quite stick the landing.
Still, it’s well-worth seeing, especially if you’ve re-watched the other stuff to death. The end result may be more akin to Robert Altman’s A Prairie Home Companion than the deservedly-celebrated Sanders, which is to say, perfectly watchable, but maybe not amongst the director’s best efforts, much less his most groundbreaking ones.
To be fair, though, I don’t think it’s trying to be. I think Lynch simply wanted to take a stab at a sitcom-type show, and this was the result. Obviously, it wasn’t for everyone- hence its swift cancellation, not to mention its late-night time slot- but hey, you can’t blame a guy for trying. But fans of Peaks in particular should check it out, especially if you’re a fan of Dick…Tremayne, that is, as the actor playing him is front and center here.
6. Hotel Room (1992)
Another lesser-known Lynch effort, this short-lived series only ran for three episodes on HBO, but two of them were directed by Lynch, and all are worth watching at least once, even if they are a bit on the slight side. Created by Lynch and Wild at Heart author Barry Gifford, who also went on to co-write Lost Highway with the director, all three episodes take place in the same hotel room- hence the title- but in different time periods: 1969, 1992 and 1936, in that order.
Not unlike the anthology Four Rooms, the only constant in the stories are the hotel staff, who never seem to age. Lynch’s episodes, the first (“Tricks”) and third (“Blackout”), feature familiar faces to those in the know about Lynch’s work: Harry Dean Stanton and Freddie Jones in the 1969 installment, and Crispin Glover and Alicia Witt in the 1936 one. Gifford scripted the two episodes, and all three have a Film Noir-meets-Twilight Zone vibe to them.
The three tales are all just so-so, which tends to happen a lot with anthology series, which is probably why this one didn’t fly for long. HBO opted to cut their losses and quit while they were ahead, but they, of course, found considerably more success with Tales from the Crypt, which ran from 1989-1996 for seven whopping seasons.
Ultimately, it was an interesting and intriguing idea, but the end result left something to be desired. Still, the “Blackout” one in particular is worth seeing. Unfortunately, the show was only given a VHS release, featuring all three episodes, which is long out of print, so your only way to do so is, you guessed it, via YouTube, or a pricey purchase via eBay or what have you.
5. DumbLand (2002)
Included as a bonus disc on David Lynch’s so-called “Lime Green Set” DVD collection, this oddball, crudely-animated series of eight shorts is something to see alright, but what you make of it will wholly depend on the viewer. Debuting as a web series on Lynch’s site in 2002, it would have been right at home in the late-night Adult Swim block on the Cartoon Network, in particular between the likes of 12 oz. Mouse and Squidbillies– both of which debuted in its wake in 2005, for the record, making Lynch once again ahead of the curve.
Anyway, if you like that sort of surrealistic-but-somewhat-minimalist approach to animation, coupled with a decidedly off-kilter and offbeat sense of humor that is admittedly sometimes disturbing, then you’ll love this, to be sure. It revolves around a nameless family- though Lynch revealed the father and main character as being Randy and the child as Sparky on his website- and the daily ins-and-outs of their existence. That’s about it.
Perhaps needless to say, this won’t be for everyone, and some may find it more disconcerting and perplexing than funny- but then, one could say that about pretty much everything Lynch does, so there you go. That said, it is an acquired taste. At around thirty minutes total, it’s not exactly a huge commitment, so go on and bite the bullet and watch all episodes. If this piques your interest, you won’t be disappointed, even if the re-watch factor is low. Just be sure and don’t miss the final episode “Ants”- it’s something! As ever, the whole shebang is available on YouTube.
4. Rabbits (2002)
Released the same year as our previous entry, this series of shorts also debuted on David Lynch’s website, and was subsequently re-edited and featured in the aforementioned “Lime Green Set.” It revolves around three rabbits voiced by Mulholland Drive vets Naomi Watts, Laura Harring and Scott Coffey, who have weird conversations punctuated by canned laughter, a la the kind you’d find on an old-school sitcom. That’s about it. (If this sounds familiar, then you must have seen Inland Empire, which features the same characters in a “cameo” of sorts.)
In a weird way, this almost succeeds where On the Air somewhat failed, in terms of being a full-on deconstruction of a sitcom. Whereas that show didn’t quite hit the mark because it was actually trying to be a sitcom, this one doesn’t even try, and the end result is every bit as disturbing- if not more so- than something like the deconstruction attempted in Oliver Stone’s Natural Born Killers.
There’s just something inherently creepy about human-like rabbits speaking in disjointed conversations with a laugh track that makes me squirm a bit for whatever reason- and mind you, I love rabbits, so it’s not a Anya-from-Buffy type thing. Maybe some residual after-effects from seeing Watership Down as a young child, who knows?
Either way, it worked for me, but some may find it slow and off-putting, even at just under forty-five minutes. As with the previous entries, if you’re a Lynch fan, it’s worth at least a single viewing. I’m reminded of a recent quote by a Showtime exec on the upcoming Peaks revival, which Lynch directed every episode of: “This is the pure heroin version of David Lynch.” What he said.
3. Industrial Symphony #1: The Dream of the Brokenhearted (1990)
Originally a staged play at Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City, this filmed version also features a cameo from Laura Dern and Nicolas Cage, who were featured in Lynch’s Wild at Heart that same year. In addition, from Twin Peaks, Julee Cruise (aka the “Roadhouse Singer”) and Michael J. Anderson (aka “The Man from Another Place”) make appearances, with Cruise singing various tracks from her debut album Floating into the Night and its follow-up Voice of Love, some of which were also featured on the show.
To say that this is surreal is putting it mildly- it’s positively dream-like. Indeed, I used to crash out to it all the time- and still do, every now and again. The “plot” is minimal, but then, it’s more about mood than storyline, anyway. You kind of have to see it to get it, really. As with some of the above shorts, it’s readily available in the “Lime Green Set,” though it was also released separately on VHS back in the day, which is where I first saw/owned it. (Yep, I’m old.)
Clocking in at around 50 minutes, it’s another low commitment watch, but some may find it boring, especially if you don’t care for go-to Lynch composer Angelo Badalamenti‘s work or Cruise’s music. But if you’re a fan of the likes of Neko Case, Lana Del Rey, Cat Power and Zola Jesus, particularly their early work, you’ll probably love this. Some have dubbed the style “sadcore” or “dark lounge” music, but whatever you call it, it’s been highly influential over the last decade or so in particular, especially with female alternative rock singers.
Personally, I love it and all the aforementioned artists, so it ranks high with me, even if it ranks relatively low on the list itself. I’ve probably watched it more than a lot of others on it, though, even the ones that rank higher, for whatever that’s worth.
2. Short Films of David Lynch(2002)/Dynamic 01: The Best of DavidLynch.com (2007)
Okay, so I cheated a bit with this one but, as taken together, they represent the cream of the crop of the best of David Lynch’s many short films, it seemed appropriate. Honestly, it was hard to know where to rank this one, as the shorts vary in quality and execution, but as with most anything Lynch, they’re all worth seeing at least once. On the plus side, many of the individual shorts are readily available online, so if you want a taste of what you’re in store for, head for YouTube, as per usual.
The Short Films of David Lynch comp is both included in the “Lime Green Set” and is available separately, and it features most of Lynch’s earliest work, so from a historical standpoint, it’s the most worthy of your time. If anything, don’t miss “The Grandmother,” the longest and most fully-formed of the collection; and if you like the humor of Peaks, “The Cowboy and the Frenchman” is fun, and features Lynch mainstays Harry Dean Stanton and Jack Nance.
Meanwhile, Dynamic 01 features most of the rest of Lynch’s short film output. I dug “Darkened Room,” featuring Jordan Ladd and Cerina Vincent, both of Eli Roth’s Cabin Fever fame, which Lynch cohort Angelo Badalamenti partially composed the score for. All of it is interesting, if a bit esoteric and oft-plotless. In other words, more of the undiluted “heroin” Lynch.
Others not included in these sets are the more recent “Absurda,” which was shown at the Cannes’ Film Festival in 2007 and can be seen here; “Ballerina” and “More Things That Happened,” which are included as bonuses on the Inland Empire DVD; the short film commissioned by Dior, “Lady Blue Shanghai,” featuring Oscar winner Marion Cotillard; “I Touch a Red Button Man,” a short animated film, with music by Interpol; and the documentary short “Idem Paris,” about the process of making lithographs. All are worth seeking out for hardcore Lynch fans, especially “Lady Blue.”
1. Dune (1984)
I went back and forth and where to rank this one on the list, as even hardcore fans tend to consider it the worst of his movies. Not only that, but Lynch himself is dismissive of the flick, referring to it as a “sell-out moment” in his career. Interestingly, after the critical and commercial success of his Oscar-nominated The Elephant Man, he was offered a host of projects, including, of all things, Return of the Jedi. One can only imagine what that would have looked like! (Something like this maybe?)
Instead, David Lynch opted to tackle this: a big-budget epic adaptation of Frank Herbert’s celebrated novel produced by no less than Dino De Laurentiis, whose resume contained the likes of Barbarella, King Kong, Flash Gordon and Conan the Barbarian. Enjoyable all, to be sure, but not exactly the kind of thing Lynch would have been involved in under normal circumstances.
Though Lynch knew going in he was a gun-for-hire, and as such, the project was almost doomed to fail, in terms of being more someone else’s vision than his own, he took it on nonetheless, not wanting to look a gift horse in the mouth. Alas, the end result was a bit of a unmitigated disaster, bombing at the box office and with most critics alike, and all but ensuring Lynch would never tackle another project of that size ever again.
Something good did come of it, though. The film led directly to De Laurentiis producing Lynch’s decidedly lower-budget follow-up, the undeniable masterpiece Blue Velvet, under the condition that this time he be given complete artistic freedom to do what he wanted and the ever-important final cut, something he wouldn’t have gotten if he and Dino hadn’t been on such good terms, in spite of Dune‘s failure.
The truth is, while it may not be quite as Lynchian as other films lower on this list, I still really dig it. Yes, it’s hard to follow if you haven’t read the book, and you can tell Lynch had to rein in a lot of his signature tropes, but nonetheless, it’s a unique experience, almost in spite of it all. In addition, it has the honor of being his first collaboration with actor Kyle MacLachlan, which would soon reap dividends shortly thereafter, as well as Lynch mainstays like Freddie Jones, Everett McGill, Jack Nance, Alicia Witt, Brad Dourif and Dean Stockwell.
I kind of prefer the extended cut, which Lynch refused to put his name on- it was replaced by the catch-all “Alan Smithee” moniker- despite the fact that it’s a much better version of the film, and far more coherent, least of all to Herbert neophytes. Yes, the whole unfinished art business is disconcerting in the intro, but overall, it’s a vast improvement.
So, really, that’s the version that causes this to rank as high as it does, even though Lynch himself disowned it, and some of the stuff lower on the list is much more “Lynchian,” as it were. Yes, it might have been interesting to see what Ridley Scott or especially Alejandro Jodorowsky would have done with the material- hell, they even made a documentary about the latter- but let’s face it, even compromised Lynch is better than most lesser directors.
Besides, where else are you gonna see Sting, Patrick Stewart, Max von Sydow, Jürgen Prochnow, Virginia Madsen, José Ferrer, Sean Young, Linda Hunt and Paul “Bluto” Smith in the same film? Nowhere but here, my friends. Also, giant killer worms, long before Tremors! It may be far from perfect and the TV remake for the Syfy Channel may be more faithful overall- and make more sense on the whole- but I saw this at a young age and loved it, and still do, despite all the criticism it got from all sides.
Feel free to disagree, though- I get it. Like most of David Lynch’s stuff, it’s not for everyone, but in this case, even Lynch fans (to say nothing of Lynch himself) are divided, so there you go. But I still kind of dig it, so make of it what you will. It may be the most blatant anomaly in Lynch’s catalog, but it’s a fascinating one.
Well, that about does it for the lesser-known Da vid Lynchworks. Join me soon for Part Two, in which we tackle the better-known efforts, including his full-on masterpieces, and thanks for reading!