I first saw scenes of David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive during a university level drama class. The scenes in particular show actress Betty Elms (Naomi Watts) rehearsing for an audition with her new friend Rita (Laura Elena Harring). Since the role she’s getting is soapy, she plays it over the top and does the same thing during the real audition. That’s until she realizes what the lines are saying and tailoring her interpretation of the role accordingly. She kills said audition, where a casting agent scoops her up, and catches the eye of a more exciting director. In showing that scene, our professor shows us what to do while acting – to pay attention to the lines. To make mistakes and try again, which is something Lynch has done throughout his career.
I’ve had the privilege to watch some of Lynch’s movies before. They are experiences in the fullest sense of the word. And TIFF wants audiences, old and new, to experience them. They have a new retrospective that they call David Lynch: The Big Dream. Going back to Mulholland Drive, Betty’s successful audition, as we see it for the first time, proves that old edict that good girls are the best at playing bad ones. But watching it again, courtesy of a preview screening, showed how excellent he is in making his plots twists believable. He drops hints about Betty’s dark side. And Watts, who Lynch cast solely through her head shot, fleshes out these hints through her mannerisms. She delivers nuanced portrayal of both queerness and moral ambiguity. This was more than just a man’s interpretation of what a queer woman is like.
Like every auteur, critics have interpreted Lynch’s movie as surreal interpretations of his own life. He and Watts had something in common while making Mulholland Drive. Back then, Hollywood looked past the both of them and this film was their way of proving everybody wrong. His other films, which the retrospective offers, show him at different stages of his life. Eraserhead has him, through protagonist Henry Spencer (Jack Nance), struggle with fatherhood. Blue Velvet has his then muse Isabella Rossellini acting out an expanded version of a traumatic experience. And if you believe a certain critic, there’s something more about the TV show Twin Peaks and its cinematic prequel Fire Walk With Me. The Freudian undertones between Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) and her father Leland (Ray Wise) reveals Lynch’s subconscious.
But there are movies that don’t, at first glance, reflect his life. But we can still protagonists in those films as substitutes for himself and the way most people see themselves. That’s particularly true in The Elephant Man. His most humanist work, as expected, shows a time when people dehumanized each other. There, John Merrick (John Hurt) navigates Victorian England and has to declare what others need to see. Wild At Heart is his interpretation of The Wizard of Oz. This is Lynch at his most psycho sexual, working out those kinks with his other muse, Laura Dern.
The Straight Story is, as the title suggests, an outlier in his filmography. It portrays Alvin Straight’s (Richard Farnsworth) journey to make amends with his brother Lyle (Harry Dean Stanton). A film I didn’t understand at the time, its straightforward nature puts its existential questions on the forefront. A man who was then in his 50s saw something in someone a generation ahead. Dreams sometimes show the worst within the people we know. But just like cinema, it shows both the monstrous and the human within ourselves.