Dennis Lim Explores Meaning of “Lynchian” in David Lynch Biography

Nathan Gelgud illustration inspired by David Lynch characters, 2015.

In 2001, as I walked out of a single-screen movie theater in North Carolina, emerging from under the marquee advertising David Lynch’s “Mulholland Drive,” a passing stranger shouted, “Hey, how was the movie?” I said I liked it, and this was the second time I’d seen it. “Ha! You had to see it twice just to figure it out?” he asked, then slid into the bar next door.

This guy struck me as a bit of a yokel, but I realized that his assumption was right. I probably did look a little baffled, and I did have to see the film twice to figure it out. Or to figure out that there was nothing to figure out. Or, at least, to figure out that if there was any reliable logic in “Mulholland Drive,” it was dream logic, which made perfect sense in its nonsense. Or something. Maybe this is what the term “Lynchian” means.

In his book David Lynch: The Man from Another Planet, Dennis Lim investigates “Lynchian” with a sophisticated earnestness, acknowledging that it’s a possibly futile but necessary thing to try to decipher. How fitting, in this tenth book in James Atlas’s Icons series, to focus on this eponymous adjective to communicate its subject’s iconoclasm?

The definition of “Lynchian” is, of course, elusive, but through his cinematic study and assemblage of biographical details, Lim makes the case that it doesn’t simply mean “weird.” Making a weird movie does not earn you response cards with remarks like, “David Lynch should be shot,” as a viewer once noted following a test screening of “Blue Velvet.” This kind of response, after the perceived flop of “Dune,” could have derailed the project, but Lynch and his producer were unfazed.

In viewing Lynch’s idiosyncratic and often subconscious choices as a series of artistic decisions, Lim is particularly insightful about “Blue Velvet” in the wake of “Dune,” writing: “The fullest expression of his sensibility required a return to earth – or more specifically, to America, native soil for the volatile admixture of fear and desire that fuels his work.” Next time I exit a Lynch film and someone asks what I think, I’ll try to come close to a line like that.