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What does Lynchian actually mean?

This visual essay explores the true definition of the weird, elusive style of film David Lynch is known for – bringing it out of its shadows

Mulholland Drive was recently named the best film of the 21st century, the neo-noir film that spun an amnesiac named Rita and a Hollywood would-be actress on a journey to uncover her true identity. It’s pretty weird – the sinister laughing elderly couple, the creepy nightclub Silencio, a mysterious blue box. Despite its cryptic nature, the film sits proudly among David Lynch’s filmic oeuvre, alongside the hallowed Twin Peaks, Eraserhead, Blue Velvet and more, with a distinct offering that’s brought about the term ‘Lynchian’. But, what exactly goes into film, or television, that makes it so?

A visual essay by Channel Criswell (Lewis Bond), unpacks the film theory that surrounds Lynch’s work, rather than relying on ‘Lynchian’ as a synonym for the two-dimensionally weird. “David Lynch – The Elusive Subconscious” explores how the director’s name became an adjective, rather than a noun. How the images of white picket fences are equally as recognisible as a hallway slowly consumed by darkness, and how what’s so familiar in every day life can be made so unsettlingly unknown by Lynch.

In the essay, Bond says: “Examples are plentiful but uniformity amongst them is rare. The definition exists in uncertain, yet therein lays the binding force of Lynch’s approach. To be Lynchian is to exude elusiveness, and the enigma of what signifies Lynchian’s sensibility lies in producing unfamiliarity in that which was once familiar.”

He refers to the Freudian theory of ‘the uncanny’ which pretty much sums up that spectrum in Lynch’s films that facilitates fear and uncertainty: we know, but at the same time we don’t. There’s this ambiguity of the laughing elderly couple in Mulholland Drive: what we know as a positive emotion and gesture, becomes downright sinister.

In a reality that’s mysteriously so far removed from our own, Bond details the dark truths to what, at first, seem like the everyday; the big shots of Hollywood, a quaint little town called Twin Peaks. Then, slowly, we’re plunged into their true horror. But, we're only given flashes of the evil and frightening: the mystery man of Lost Highway, Killer Bob at the foot of Laura Palmer's bed. This dimension of Lynch is “easy to recognise but almost impossible to hide – it holds onto its secrets,” says Bond.

Bond also draws attention to the use of big, sinister shots to make characters seem much smaller, and Lynch’s clever use of audio that helps to exaggerate our sense of fear with unexpected, loud noise.

What we do subconsciously, the subjects of Lynch’s films do physically because of the concept of ‘dualism’ – there’s light and dark to the characters, sometimes there are duplicates (Laura and Maddie in Twin Peaks, for example). 

Lynch, according to Bond, believed films should never be explained. His fascination with transcendental meditation feeds into the idea that his films make the audience work to find and impose their own meaning. After all, he admitted before that he had no idea what was in the Mullholland Drive blue box, or what the meaning of the strang Eraserhead actually was. The red curtains in the lodge in Twin Peaks provide a physical gateway between subconscious realms, and the concept of Blue Velvet, even, came about only from the image of red lips, green lawns and a song, not because of any linear storyline idea. 

Rather, as Bond observes: “Cinema allows us, the audience, to look inside ourselves for meaning, and perhaps in turn, gain a greater self awareness of the world around them. The answers, are right in front of our eyes, it’s up to you how willing you are to find them.”

Watch the stunning video essay below.