In 1977, David Lynch released his debut feature, Eraserhead, a bizarre black-and-white journey through fatherhood, urban decay and isolation. Made on a small budget of $100,000, pre-production lasted several years as Lynch attempted to find adequate funding, with Jack Nance being cast as Henry six years before the movie finally hit screens.
However, Lynch’s dedication to filmmaking eventually paid off. While the film wasn’t received with unanimous acclaim straight away, it soon became a popular midnight movie and is now considered a cult classic. Eraserhead signalled the birth of Lynch’s career as one of cinema’s most celebrated surrealists, with the director entering the world of dreams and nightmares through his otherworldly, haunting imagery.
Since Eraserhead, Lynch has only continued to release work that has simultaneously terrified and enthralled audiences. He found significant success with The Elephant Man and Blue Velvet during the 1980s, leading to his television show Twin Peaks, co-created with Mark Frost. Often hailed as one of the greatest and most influential shows ever made, it spawned a prequel movie, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, and a third season, also known as The Return, set 25 years later.
At the heart of Lynch’s work is an exploration of the American dream, which often causes significant destruction. From the image of the severed ear lurking beneath white picket fences and roses in Blue Velvet to the perfect-looking town hiding a seedy underworld of crime and abuse in Twin Peaks, Lynch often reveals the cracks in America’s surface.
In several movies, Lynch has depicted the weakness of the American Dream by exploring the corruption of Hollywood. Most notably, Mulholland Drive uses the promise of Hollywood success to examine the futility of dreaming, which inevitably results in tragedy. In Inland Empire, Lynch also uses a Hollywood setting, charting an actor’s loss of stability as she comes to embody her character.
Lynch’s love of depicting movies within his own, as well as his infatuation with the concept of dreaming, is partly inspired by the work of Federico Fellini. One of the Italian director’s most celebrated movies is 8½, which follows a filmmaker suffering from a creative block. The movie is full of dreamlike sequences as Fellini explores the line between fantasy and reality, much like Lynch.
Thus, it’s unsurprising that Lynch lists 8½ as one of his favourite movies and Fellini as one of the directors he holds great admiration for, once stating that he used to watch the filmmaker’s work “over and over”.
Discussing his love for Fellini’s cinematic odyssey, Lynch wrote in his book Catching the Big Fish: “Federico Fellini manages to accomplish with film what mostly abstract painters do – namely, to communicate an emotion without ever saying or showing anything in a direct manner, without ever explaining anything, just by a sort of sheer magic.”
Luckily for Lynch, he met his cinematic hero twice, managing to visit him in his hospital bed not long before he passed away. He shared: “He holds my hand, and we talk for half an hour, so beautiful. At the end of the talk, I said: ‘Mr. Fellini, the whole world is waiting for your next film.’ He smiled and waved goodbye, out I went. Next day, we go back to Paris, and [while] watching television, [I] hear ‘Fellini has gone into a coma.’ How lucky was I to have that last visit.”