David Lynch spent his childhood being raised in several towns across the Pacific Northwest and North Carolina, with an occasional visit to his grandparents in Brooklyn, New York. As a student he spent a portion of his early adult life in Philadelphia at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. This odd combination of small town America and industrial metropolis may well have influenced his work, and seems to be a good place to try and figure out what the “Lynchian tone” is.
Lynch was an Eagle Scout and occasionally joined his father, who was a US Department of Agriculture scientist on research trips. As an artist, Lynch would fuse the biological textures of the real world with his work, incorporating dead flies, moths and even a dead mouse into his paintings. After a successful art show where his animated film entitled “Six Men Getting Sick” (1966) received critical praise Lynch acquired funding to produce “the Alphabet”.
The Alphabet is a nightmarish short film about the fear of learning - the sin of knowledge that leads to corruption and the destruction of innocence. As a painter and photographer Lynch seems to have slipped into film making as a way to bring images to life - his first films had no dialogue and used unique soundtracks to express emotions - he’s also consistently reluctant to offer explanations of his films and to put his thoughts on paper. Hmmm …
The Grandmother (1970), his first funded film was produced from a $5,000 grant from the newly formed American Film Institute. This might be a good place to see what the ‘Lynchian tone’ is. Well, not being an expert I didn’t know, so I rely on what the tutor told us. “The Grandmother” is grotesque, surreal and sentimental – a narrative theme which is repeated in some of Lynch’s later work, it is also the first chance to hear the work of Alan Splet, the sound technician Lynch has worked with on many films. The film (again) has no narrative and relies on the score to set the nightmarish atmosphere. Splet uses natural sounds like thunderstorms while the boy ‘grows’ the grandma and distorted dog barks for the parents.
The boy is dressed in a suit, and stands isolated against his possessions in rooms with black walls. It’s surreal; it makes the characters look disconnected and their white faces look dream-like and stark in contrast. The boy’s suit serves to further disconnect him from his animal-like parents and also illustrate the formality of Middle American society. I think Lynch is hinting that the surreal infiltrates the normal; the subconscious lives with the conscious and we live in a world where dreams and reality are seamlessly merged.
I think this idea of inner/outer psychological experience is best expressed in the Terry Gilliam style animations Lynch intersects with the film. The animations tell the same story, but as a different media, they represent imagination or subconscious. In later films Lynch moves away from film/ animation to show this and works towards film/ film and even further with dual characters (Betty/ Diane in Mulholland drive). Mulholland Drive I think shows perfectly how conscious and subconscious lives together and are one way the ‘Lynchian tone’ resonates in his work.
The animation also suggests that all the characters were ‘grown’ in the same way the grandmother was. It highlights Lynches themes of the natural and artificial world merging – an idea Lynch illustrated in his paintings. He seems pre-occupied with the biology of birth, of botanic things ‘oozing’ and dripping and this is a theme we see in grotesque detail in the infamous midnight movie, “Eraserhead” (1976).
Lynch’s work has been described here as “uncanny”, “surreal” and “grotesque” where his nightmarish images are perfectly matched to a sweeping sound scape designs. The ‘uncanny’ is the best way to sum up Lynch’s work – this Freudian idea explains why everything we see makes us feel uncomfortable - it is darkly familiar, it awakens primeval, repressed memories, in other words, the inner hidden voice is given a very visible outer amplifier. Inner/ outer, repressed/ expressed, dreamed/ experienced, nature/manmade – there is a duality in Lynch’s work and this can be seen as the “Lynchian tone” in my mind.