David Lynch is the renaissance man of modern American filmmaking, an acclaimed and widely recognized writer/director as well as television producer, photographer, cartoonist, composer, and graphic artist. Walking the tightrope between the mainstream and the avant-garde with remarkable balance and skill, Lynch brings to the screen a singularly dark and disturbing view of reality, a nightmare world punctuated by defining moments of extreme violence, bizarre comedy, and strange beauty. More than any other arthouse filmmaker of his era, he has enjoyed considerable mass acceptance and has helped to redefine commercial tastes, honing a surrealistic aesthetic so visionary and deeply personal that the phrase "Lynchian" was coined simply to describe it.
Born January 20, 1946, in Missoula, MO, David Keith Lynch grew up the archetypal all-American boy: The son of a U.S. Department of Agriculture research scientist, he was raised throughout the Pacific Northwest, eventually becoming an Eagle Scout and even serving as an usher at John F. Kennedy's Presidential inauguration. Originally intending to become a graphic artist, Lynch enrolled in the Corcoran School of Art in Washington, D.C., in 1963, falling under the sway of expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka and briefly studying in Europe. By the early weeks of 1966, he had relocated to Philadelphia, where he attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts and began his first experimentation with film.
The violence and decay which greeted Lynch in Philadelphia proved to have a profound and long-lasting effect, as his work became increasingly obsessed with exploring the dark corners of the human experience. From his first experimental student film (1967's "moving painting" Six Men Getting Sick, which its creator described as "57 seconds of growth and fire, and three seconds of vomit") onward, his vision grew more and more fascinated with the seedy underbelly of everyday life. Awarded an American Film Institute Grant, The Alphabet, a partially animated 16 mm color film, followed later in the year, but Lynch soon turned away from the cinema to renew his focus on fine art. His next short film, The Grandmother, did not appear until 1970.
In 1972, Lynch began work on his first feature effort, Eraserhead. A surreal nightmare borne of the director's own fears and anxieties of fatherhood, the film took over five years to complete, finally premiering in March of 1977. An instant cult classic, it was also a tremendous critical success, launching Lynch to the forefront of avant-garde filmmaking. Financed with the aid of boyhood friend Jack Fisk, a noted production designer as well as the husband of actress Sissy Spacek, Eraserhead not only established Lynch's singular worldview but also cemented the team of actors and technicians who would continue to define the texture of his work for years to come, including cinematographer Frederick Elmes, sound designer Alan Splet, and actor Jack Nance.
The success of Eraserhead brought Lynch to the attention of Mel Brooks, who was seeking projects to produce besides his own comedies. He recruited Lynch to helm 1980's The Elephant Man, the tale of John Merrick, a hideously deformed member of 19th century British society. Complete with a cast including such celebrated talent as John Hurt, Anthony Hopkins, Anne Bancroft, and John Gielgud, the film marked Lynch's acceptance into the Hollywood mainstream, even netting an Academy Award nomination for Best Picture as well as a nod for Best Director. After launching the weekly comic strip The Angriest Dog in the World in 1982, he began adapting the Frank Herbert science fiction novel Dune for Dino De Laurentiis. The first of Lynch's films to star actor Kyle MacLachlan, who quickly emerged as the director's cinematic alter ego, the 1984 big-budget effort was a commercial and critical disaster -- Lynch himself even disowned the project after it was re-edited for release without his consent.
Lynch had agreed to make Dune for De Laurentiis in order to film 1986's Blue Velvet, a long-simmering tale exploring the dark underbelly of small-town life. Insisting upon complete artistic control, he made the picture for under seven million dollars, casting actors ranging from MacLachlan to model Isabella Rossellini to Dennis Hopper and Dean Stockwell, former stars whose popularity had suffered in recent years. The completed film was an unqualified masterpiece, a hypnotically violent creepshow which earned Lynch his second Oscar nomination as well as boosting the careers of all involved. Hopper, in particular, won raves for his bravura turn as the sociopathic killer Frank Booth, the movie's vision of evil incarnate.
At the peak of his powers, Lynch turned away from motion pictures to concentrate on other forms of media. First, in 1989 he staged Industrial Symphony No. 1, an avant-musical performance piece created with composer Angelo Badalmenti. Then, in 1990 he mounted his most commercially successful work, the ABC television series Twin Peaks. A surrealist soap opera created in conjunction with former Hill Street Blues producer Mark Frost, Twin Peaks became a cultural phenomenon, spurred by the mystery of "Who killed Laura Palmer?," the series' central plot thread. Suddenly, Lynch was a cultural figure of considerable renown, a filmmaker perhaps more famous than any of his actors. His fame was bolstered when his fifth feature, 1990's hallucinatory road movie Wild at Heart, grabbed the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival. He even appeared on the cover of Time magazine.
As quickly as the media had built Lynch up, however, they tore him down. Wild at Heart received mixed reviews from American critics, while Twin Peaks was scuttled off to a poorly suited Saturday night slot, leading to its demise in early 1991. Two other Lynch-created series, the documentary anthology American Chronicles and the situation comedy On the Air, also met with premature deaths. In 1992, he released Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, a feature-film prequel to the television series. An ambitious, fractured work featuring Sheryl Lee as the ill-fated Laura Palmer, the picture was savaged by critics, leaving a wounded Lynch to plot his next move. He spent the next few years away from the limelight. Apart from 1994's Images, a book collection of photographs and paintings, little was seen or heard from him for close to half a decade.
Finally, in 1997, Lynch resurfaced with the enigmatic Lost Highway, another experimental, dream-like effort that polarized viewers' responses. He enjoyed more renown in 1999 when The Straight Story was released at the Cannes Film Festival. The film, based on a true story, marked a departure from Lynch's previous subject matter; the simple tale of a man (Richard Farnsworth) who gets on his tractor and drives 350 miles to see his brother, it offered few of the dark undertones and twisted subtext that had come to be known as the director's trademarks. It was released at Cannes to generally positive reviews -- and earned Farnsworth his second Oscar nomination -- causing more than a few to observe that Lynch was once again back on track.
That notion would continue with 2001's Hollywood-set thriller-melodrama, Mulholland Drive. Like Twin Peaks, the project was originally developed with ABC as a series pilot; unlike Lynch's first foray into television, however, Mulholland was scrapped before it could make a prime-time premiere. Although Lynch tinkered with the two-hour pilot several times in an attempt to satisfy the network brass, they remained unsatisfied. The frustrated director then turned to European financing in order to sculpt a feature film out of his material. Premiering at the 2001 Cannes Film Festival, Mulholland garnered much acclaim, snagging Lynch the fest's Best Director award (which he shared with Joel Coen for The Man Who Wasn't There), and cementing his career resurgence.
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