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David Lynch’s films are all pieces to one single story.
David Lynch is a polarizing figure, you either love his films or you have bad taste. But in all seriousness, his works can be enigmatic, difficult, if not impenetrable. Lynch is the not the first auteur to maintain a thematic fingerprint throughout their career, but there are few worlds as utterly singular than those which David Lynch has created. These works, from 1977’s Eraserhead to this year’s Twin Peaks revival on Showtime, may seem like disorientating, if not incomprehensible, but actually… all of David Lynch’s major works are all connected and weave a single narrative.
To follow the thread that weaves all of Lynch’s major works together we’ll start with Eraserhead. We’ll leave a thorough analysis of these films for another day and focus on the characters and themes that track consistently across his career. I’ll offer a mild spoiler warning for anyone who hasn’t seen his films but conversely proceed in faith that you know how to use Wikipedia to fill in any blanks. Essentially, in Eraserhead, Jack Nance portrays Henry, an sullen and insular, timid, apartment dweller in a post-industrialized nightmarescape of pollution, birth defects, and inescapable desolation.
Henry brings up an unexpected newborn child with his bitter, cold and passionless partner in a cramped windowless apartment. The kicker being that the child is a malformed limbless alien-like deformity that can do nothing but mewl in pain ceaselessly day and night. The surreal film is bookended with a separate scene that captures a monstrous looking man pulling massive levers and turning monumental gears from the center of the earth. Serving as prologue and epilogue, it can be argued the man turns Henry’s world of unending misery. The concept underscores the tragic potential of a fated universe where free will and choice are limited under the cruel hands at the wheel, turning the events to come for their own inconceivable ends.
This dispassionate, if not bleak, concept of existence is similarly questioned in Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, Lost Highway, and Mulholland Drive to varying but persistent degrees. Eraserhead’s atmospheric score and black and white presentation was the primordial archetype that would become refined and nuanced over the years. The malformed “child” was told to Henry to be his child, but the actual pregnancy is not featured or mentioned. This spontaneous birth is a warped, dark parallel to a divine creation formed from the consequences of the past.
These troubling births derived from cause and effect are similarly represented in the alternate reality given birth in Mulholland Drive due to Naomi Watts’s psychological breakdown. More examples can be found in Lynch characters like the Fireman’s golden orb genesis of Laura Palmer in Twin Peaks: The Return as a result of an emergent evil, and the spontaneous manifestation of Balthazar Getty’s existence from Bill Pullman’s former life due to a tragic turn of events too monumental for him to comprehend in Lost Highway. Ultimately, Eraserhead serves to establish the universe and essential tones that will be prevalent throughout the shared universe going forward, as well as positing the central question of the merit of a man’s soul.
The tangible nuts and bolts of the shared universe begin to assemble in 1989’s Blue Velvet, where the central driving figure of David Lynch’s shared universe is properly introduced, Kyle Maclaclan. (*Technically, Maclachlan first worked with Lynch on Dune, but as with Elephant Man, neither film were penned by Lynch, only directed, and are therefore excluded for our discussion- but totally watch both of them.)
Here’s where we get to the real nitty-gritty. In Blue Velvet, Kyle Maclachlan plays Jeffrey Beaumont, a college student called home after his father suffers a heart attack. Jeffrey is similar to Dustin Hoffman’s character in the Graduate in that both young men find themselves at a crossroads in life, searching through an existential malaise in need of a purpose, a driving cause to move forward. This comes in the form of a severed ear that Jeffrey finds in a field. Soon, Jeffrey finds himself embroiled in an unraveling mystery working alongside the local police in an unofficial capacity. Detective work comes naturally to Jeffrey and he can’t help but involve himself, driven by both an insatiable curiosity of an expanding world and a deep sense of moral conviction; two traits we will see again in another Maclachlan role penned by Lynch.
In the film, Jeffrey wears disguises, performs surveillance on suspects, saves a damsel in distress, and confronts a central villain, Frank Booth, whose main power can be argued to be a near preternatural callous aggression and disdain for life; keep these traits in mind as we’ll come back to them in short order. Jeffrey’s encounter with this man forces him to posit the central question in Lynch’s work, “Why are there people like Frank?” What he is asking on a macro level is the question of why is there evil in the world and why does it manifest in some men’s souls?
Jeffrey also falls in love with Sandy, played by the incomparable Laura Dern, and by the end the two are a couple. But actually, like the Graduate, the happy ending is anything but as we find Jeffrey sitting alone in the backyard purposefully isolated from both his family and girlfriend. He stares off into space listlessly. The mystery solved and villain dispatched, Jeffrey has fallen immediately back into his ennui. Now that he has had a taste of the real world outside of his suburban sheltered youth, there can be no going back.
This leads us to Twin Peaks, the next work to be written and directed by Lynch, which saw Kyle Maclachlan return to play another lead character, this time Special Agent Dale Cooper. Ostensibly, Agent Cooper investigates the murder of Laura Palmer only to find the killer was actually possessed by an evil spirit, BOB. BOB is described as the “evil that men do”. He is a timeless force, cosmic even. BOB is the personification of the alienation and desolate world Lynch first developed in Eraserhead and is at the root of Jeffrey’s thesis query to Sandy in Blue Velvet.
While this may seem like an entirely separate project, actually… Twin Peak’s Dale Cooper is Blue Velvet’s Jeffrey Beaumont. It’s not hard to imagine that after having a taste law enforcement, Jeffrey is driven to see this through and joins the FBI. After proving an innate skill, Jeffrey is assigned to the Blue Rose task force, a department so clandestine much of the world, let alone other law agencies, aren’t aware of its existence. It would make sense that its members would operate under new identities to maintain a level of secrecy and so Jeffrey assumes the name Dale Cooper. Much of Cooper’s mannerisms, like a cherubic curiosity along with his moral compass align directly with the former Jeffrey Beaumont. While it can be argued that is due to the same actor in both roles, there is a decided effort in the scripting and direction of the two characters to maintain an equilibrium, an alchemy manufactured by David Lynch.
Jumping ahead to the recent Showtime revival of Twin Peaks, we catch up with the characters twenty-five years removed. One of the revival’s revelations is that the mysterious assistant of Cooper, Diane, is revealed to have been Laura Dern all along- remember, Jeffrey’s girlfriend in Blue Velvet also played by Dern? In this theory Sandy follows Jeffrey into the FBI and similarly assumes a new identity as Diane to remain with him. It should be noted in the final episode of Twin Peaks it is hinted that after crossing dimension or realities Dale Cooper and Diane are no longer themselves as they once knew but in fact Richard and Linda. This underscores the impermanence of their identities and is perhaps an allusion the aliases.
But let’s look at those twenty-five years in-between the return of Twin Peaks. Laura Dern’s Diane was revealed to have been sexually assaulted and dimensionally displaced by the supernatural Mr. C (who is in part a synthesis of BOB- it’s complicated). It has to be more than coincidence to find Laura Dern cast as a sexually assaulted woman caught between multiple concurrent realities in David Lynch’s Inland Empire which would have occurred during the timeline where Diane was displaced in alternate dimensions. One of his more inscrutable works, Inland Empire is often considered incomprehensible, but actually… Inland Empire takes a much sharper focus when realizing that it follows the spiritually and psychologically distressed Diane, nee Sandy, throughout her time in dimensional exile until Agent Cooper can ultimately save her in the penultimate episode of Twin Peaks in 2017, thusly tying multiple films and televisions show together in a wonderfully surreal bow.
Concurrently during that era, Lost Highway was released in 1997. The only other film that Lynch has openly said takes place within the world of Twin Peaks. Lost Highway paradoxically omits any of the familiar faces typically cast in Lynch films, including those of Twin Peaks. The one exception is Jack Nance, who only has a single line as a cameo extra and serves as something of a lodestone as it was Nance who originally portrayed the lead in Eraserhead. The connection Lost Highway holds to Twin Peaks is in its manipulative evil spirit antagonists, portrayed here by a white faced Robert Blake. Typical in presentation and portrayal to the similarly mannered residents of the Black Lodge, Robert Blake’s unnamed being was a catalyst for the base and craven aspects of man, a grinning manipulator of souls that tarries in the same spiritual void as Blue Velvet’s Frank Booth and Twin Peaks’s BOB.
The psychogenic fugue that sees the main character of Lost Highway undergo from Bill Pullman to Balthazar Getty due to severe psychological trauma is very similar to the fracturing of the psyche exhibited by Agent Cooper and his Dougie Jones and Mr. C facsimiles after his own spiritual odyssey. This theme is also central to Naomi Watt’s character in Mulholland Drive. But back to Lost Highway for a moment- the desolate shack in the middle of the desert where Pullman and Getty experience their merging and severing of consciousness is similar to the specificity of the locations in the woods of Twin Peaks which characters seek out to comingle with other various spiritual forces. It is in these nexuses of power and mystery to which Lynch has ascribed Twin Peaks and Lost Highway their connection.
Mullholland Drive holds no overt connections, (except for the meta connection of it stemming from an attempt to script an Audrey Horne spinoff series) but its narrative device of a psychologically affected person, played by Naomi Watts, experiencing a split with reality is central and in step with the same world Lynch has maintained.
And for the completists out there, we can round up Lynch’s other films, Wild at Heart and Straight Story, as glimpses into the various alternate conscious realities that Twin Peaks characters like Diane, Audrey Horne, Laura and Carl Rodd find themselves inhabiting. Not only do all four Twin Peaks characters feature in different roles in the respective films, each experiences inexplicable separations with conscious reality within the canon of Twin Peaks, allowing for their double duty in other roles.
To the uninitiated, David Lynch’s films are unfairly dismissed as “trippy” or “weird” but actually… they all tie together to tell the story of Jeffrey Beaumont joining the CIA to investigate supernatural evils of the soul under the assumed name of Dale Cooper in a surrealistic world defined by Eraserhead with its premise reinforced in films like Lost Highway, Inland Empire, and Mulholland Drive.