The film world generally considers David Lynch an important director. Although he has never won an Academy Award, Lynch is now a lifetime member of a select group of filmmakers that have instead won unconditional approval from the film industry and film criticism communities. Lynch’s cinema is respected by the most respected people in cinema. Like a Michael Mann, or a Martin Scorsese pre-Departed, David Lynch is a filmmaker’s filmmaker.
The term ‘director’ has a specific industrial definition. It means the person (or people) creatively in charge of the film production, leader to tail. The director directs — the actors, the camera, lighting, technicians, operations, production, editing, sound, everything. The director is the main control conduit, not financially but artistically, and the whole equation of film’s conventions still organize around the notion of the director’s film. Film is a director’s medium.
The French term ‘realizateur’ may be helpful to accurately define the director’s position. Katherine Bigelow or Claire Denis or Barry Jenkins or David Lynch or Federico Fellini or Alfred Hitchcock or Leni Riefenstahl “realize” the film, from conception to finished product. They render their dreams real for us onscreen.
But consider this: there is another way to think about directing. The director is additionally directing the viewer’s attention, our collective understanding, towards their personal vision. Directors realize something out of a dream and present it before a public for consumption or, at least, as the Academy Award-season screeners always say, “For Your Consideration.”
What a director directs us towards is important to consider. It is as if when we enter a theatre or exhibition space, or press play on some viewing device, the director whispers to us, ‘Hey, watch this. I want to show you something.’
What are we watching now? What is the director directing our attention towards? It could be anything. A director can, nowadays, create any image, any narrative, nothing is too fantastic. Not to say that an audience will consume any image or narrative that any director realizes, but Hitchcock generally made mysteries, Woody Allen generally made comedies, and David Lynch supposedly makes something approaching capital ‘A’ art with the otherwise popular medium of cinema. He is one level removed from having to take a moral stance. Cinema is not opera. It is not even theatre. Cinema began as a peep show for a penny and has not strayed far from those roots. There is nothing wrong with that. But if you really want high art, David Lynch also paints.
Lynch’s cinema is amoral, undoubtedly. And its amorality is performed under the aegis of either popular shlock, or high art, or satire. Lynch presents images in an aestheticized and eroticized context which ostensibly soften their loose moral portrayals into abstraction. Case in point: “Pretty as a Picture” is the title of one of Lynch’s feature-length documentary retrospectives. If viewers have a moral problem with Lynch’s direction, then they should just consider his films as pretty pictures, nothing more. Or, as Tom Cruise’s character in “Eyes Wide Shut” is instructed, ‘cease your inquiries.’ Indeed it appears that David Lynch is shadowed by some significant power that allows his direction, his own themes and narratives frequently hinting at the often dark and always absurd forces that grant or deny him access to this cinematic platform.
Lynch is entitled in a special way. His unofficial title as cinema’s greatest living auteur permits him to break rules that other artists are forced to follow. Lynch’s work is alternately outrageous, asinine, violent, racist, sexist, sophomoric, and pretentious — all the criticisms that generally intelligent and well-versed audiences would identify immediately in other filmmakers, sometimes prematurely, sometimes spitefully. And yet viewers and critics and the cool and the hip and the academy (if not the Academy) and even feminists and people of every stripe and identity come to Lynch’s defence whenever his work encounters any real criticism. Especially any criticism of its amorality, and especially vocally on social media. The common defence is that Lynch’s work is not ‘x’; it is about ‘x’: Lynch is not sexist, his work is about sexism. Lynch is not racist, his films depict racism. These reasonings are facile, however, akin to a brat holding his finger one inch from another kid’s face, arguing, “I’m not touching you! I’m not touching you!” OK, but don’t put your finger right in my face and expect me not to say something.
Roger Ebert was one of few serious American critics who never took Lynch too seriously. Ebert recognized Lynch’s brand of craft, however crudely Lynch rendered his personal visions, however rudimentarily he directed his scenes for the camera. But Ebert saw through Lynch’s posturing as a subversive director of artistic aspirational stature. Ebert understood that the film industry in some ways granted Lynch even more license than a pornographer to direct amoral films and present them to popular audiences. Ebert saw that Lynch managed to play both sides of the fence — he was able to portray the most awful and despicable human characteristics and simply waltz away from criticism to the tune of high art. Or satire. Depending on which side of the fence he was leaning. Meanwhile, Isabella Rossellini, Sheryl Lee, Laura Dern, and many others were brutalized in front of the camera. Bafflingly, some of them came back for more.
When David Lynch or any director directs an audience’s attention, the audience in numbers will determine how much attention the director can direct. In Lynch’s case, the audience has grown algorithmically to include practically everyone who considers themselves passingly conversant in cinema, from novice cineastes to internationally renowned film scholars and journalistic critics. Criticizing Lynch, especially along moral grounds, is profoundly frowned upon, deeply unhip, akin to espousing political support for Donald Trump. Even women who would normally otherwise deplore the sorts of portrayals Lynch conjures of women’s victimization are the first to vocally support Lynch, especially on Twitter and other networks. Approval for David Lynch is its own brand, just as is listening to Aphex Twin or Godspeed You! Black Emperor. These subversive artists are trademarks, markers of a new class hip both to and beyond morality.
Roger Ebert held fast that David Lynch was technically a proficient filmmaker, but that his direction of what we might call psychic or ethical energy was at best misdirected. I agree with Ebert. If a director can put any vision before any audience, if they can realize any dream in the media of moving images and sound, then Lynch is casting our collective visions as nightmares. And David Lynch’s nightmare scenarios should not be so cavalierly delivered by the medium of the people — not as entertainment, nor as satire, nor as high art.
Our most popular medium’s avant-garde deserves a better direction.