David Lynch In Dreams

The first time I watched David Lynch’s 2006 film INLAND EMPIRE, I sat with my laptop open and did some kind of unfiltered, automatic typing throughout the 3-hour running time. Lynch’s visceral, surrealistic brand of film-making arguably makes it a legitimate form of criticism to attempt to capture one’s raw, unprocessed reaction. And whilst the long, non-sensical document I had at the end of the process was of dubious critical value it at least served as a genuine record partly of the action of the film, and partly of my immediate reaction to it.1 The discussion taking place at the BFI this afternoon were of a more thoughtful kind. Taking place as part of the current Lynch season on London’s Southbank the study day, billed David Lynch: In Dreams, focussed on the ‘dream worlds’ of the director’s work. Though this might seem like a relatively narrow focus, the discussion was framed in such a way as to accomplish several different views on Lynch’s films, as well as on some of his work outside of the cinema.

Ruth, Roses & Revolver

The first part of the afternoon was a screening of a 1987 episode of the BBC arts program Arena, in which Lynch talks the viewer through excerpts from nine of his favourite surrealistic works from the formative days of cinema. Though some of the work in question (incl. pieces by Duchamp, Man Ray, and Cocteau) felt more successful than other pieces, it was an interesting insight into the cinematic roots of Lynch’s own style. As the afternoon progressed speakers linked Lynch’s work to psychoanalysis and to the novelistic tradition of southern gothic, but throughout the day the strongest cinematic ancestors remained these bizarre European works.

Bungalow Dreams: Maya Deren to David Lynch

The first presentation of the day came from John David Rhodes, who spoke on the impact Los Angeles' architecture had had upon its filmic product. The most interesting idea, which Rhodes made with recourse mainly to film noir, was that the prevelance of the bungalow in golden-era LA inspired a certain kind of editing and narrative flow: no corridors separating rooms, and no entrance hall leading to a tenuousness of the private / public and exterior / interior dualitites.

Rhodes struggled a little to situate his thesis specifically within Lynch’s work, but his discussion of ‘contiguity, similarity and displacement’ in both architecture and psychology was interesting enough on its own.

The Elephant in the Living Room Man

The second presentation, by Ben Halligan, was also couched in terms more generally cinematic than specific to Lynch’s work. The most vibrant idea, from a paper which convincingly positioned Hitchcock as precursor to Lynch, was that modernist surrealism took a didactic, outward-looking form in search of answers; postmodernist surrealism however, was characterised by its inward-looking, reflective quality.

Nightmares in a Lynchian Brain

Third presenter Michael Goddard did a good job of positioning his discussion generally within certain schools of film theory and more specifically within Lynch’s loose trilogy of Lost Highway, Mulholland Drive, and INLAND EMPIRE.

Personally I found the cursory discussion of film structure as directly related to the topography of the human brain to be a little hard to grasp, but one of Goddard’s other contentions did strike a chord which resonated throughout the afternoon. The idea that the surrealist tendency is towards a de-naturalising of the material so as to purposefully invalidate attempts at monolithic interpretation is very interesting. It speaks both to some of the novels we’ve been reading as a group on this term’s Postmodern Fiction course (e.g. Pynchon’s V, and Ishmael Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo), and to the PhD proposal I’ve been pitching recently on Keatsian negative capability in modernist fiction.

Goddard also made repeated mention of what he termed ‘aberrant networks’ in Lynch’s work. The more he used the term the more I started to see them everywhere, in one form or another (social, spacial, technological…), in the films.

Dreams That Money Can Buy

The day’s final presentation, by London College of Communication lecturer Anthony Todd was the most Lynch-centric, and the least theoretical. Todd focussed on Lynch’s work in advertising, and the question of how we can relate it to his cinematic (and other artistic) works. More questions were posed than answers attempted, and Todd gave half of his time over to a screening of Lynch’s 16-minute Dior advert, Lady Blue Shanghai, which whilst interesting did not really further his argument.

Indeed the question of how best to reconcile Lynch the advertiser with Lynch the film-maker (not to mention the coffee purveyor, transcendental meditation guru, and musician etc.) spilled over into the Q&A session which concluded the afternoon. All of the speakers returned as a panel, and provided thoughtful and thought-provoking responses to some good audience questions. The Hitchcock / Lynch link was raised again, as was the influence of Freud. Most interestingly there was some brief mention of the idea of Lynch’s films creating a liminal space into which to lead the audience; I’ve come across the idea of liminality before, whilst researching an essay on Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, but hadn’t thought of it in terms of cinema.

I also liked the notion raised that part of the project of INLAND EMPIRE was a wilful destruction of the aesthetics of Mulholland Drive - that seems like a good excuse to re-watch both. In fact I’ll be back at the BFI on 21 Feb for a screening of IE, this time without my laptop.


  1. I wish I still had this text (NB never delete anything). Months after I published it online, someone wrote to me saying they had read my rambling blogpost alongside their own first viewing of the film. I can’t imagine what that was like. ↩︎