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Friday, 10 May, 2002, 19:31 GMT 20:31 UK
David Lynch: American surrealist
David Lynch
David Lynch began life as an artist
David Lynch is heading the panel of judges at the 2002 Cannes Film Festival, which awarded him the best director prize last year. BBC News Online looks back at his long career.

David Lynch is one of the most challenging and original directors to have come out of America.

His Oscar-nominated film Mulholland Drive is typical of much of his work, sharply dividing many critics and film-goers who have been alienated by what seems to be an impenetrable narrative.

Mulholland Drive confounds the critics
Mulholland Drive confounds the critics
Surrealism, semiotics and strong Freudian themes of sexual identity permeate through his work, creating complex tales of lust and desire.

Objects, sights and sounds take on wide and complex significance in Lynch films, and he often seems to be toying with the very film analysts who would deconstruct his work.

But his strong sense of visual style and powerful story-telling skills have won over just as many fans.

Strange terms

If his films are odd, it is a reflection of his inner life and upbringing.

Born in 1946, he has described his childhood in strange terms.

"My father was a scientist for the forest service. He would drive me through the woods... then drop me in the woods and go off.

"It was a weird comforting feeling being in the woods. There were odd, mysterious things.

"That's the kind of world I grew up in."

His films have always been about characters on the fringe of society, or seemingly "ordinary Joes" who stumble across the underbelly of their perfect world.

Solo exhibitions

He enjoyed a peripatetic childhood, his family moving to many non-descript towns, and perhaps it was here he first encountered the middle-America he has so ruthlessly exposed as hot-beds of deceit and corruption.

His early career was as an artist, with solo exhibitions in Philadelphia in the late 1960s.

Kyle MacLachlan in Dune
Dune was considered a mess
But he soon moved across to film, studying at the American Film Institute's Center for Advanced Film Studies in Los Angeles.

His first films The Alphabet and The Grandmother while a student were followed by his cult classic Eraserhead in 1972, which took four years to film because of financial problems.

It caught the attention of film-maker and producer Mel Brooks who hired him to direct a film version of The Elephant Man, for which he received an Oscar nomination for best director.

After being reportedly offered the director's seat for Return of the Jedi, Lynch instead turned to another science fiction classic.

Supremely dark

He followed up The Elephant Man with an adaptation of Frank Herbert's epic novel Dune, and the film was panned by critics and he himself has described a shortened version of the movie released by the studio as a "garbage compactor".

Blue Velvet
Blue Velvet was a dark and complex tale
A year later he released what was then considered his masterpiece, Blue Velvet, in 1986.

All of his themes united in a supremely dark and voyeuristic tale of a clean-cut young man in middle-America who finds himself at the centre of a warped and sick sub-culture that exists under the surface of town life.

His exploration of the hellacious continued in the less successful Wild at Heart in 1990, starring Nicholas Cage and Laura Dern, yet it still walked off with the Palm d'Or at Cannes.

But the template of both movies was used for his brief foray into TV, Twin Peaks, in 1990.

At first a TV sensation, this chronicle of sex, violence and horror in a small town seemed to capture the zeitgeist of the new decade.


But the series' initial energy ebbed quickly and it petered out into the increasingly bizarre and pointless.

He returned to Twin Peaks with a movie version, Fire Walk With Me, two years later, but by this stage he had lost the faith of many of his fans and general movie-goers.

Eraserhead is considered a cult classic
Only the rabid Lynchophile's were able to make any sense of Lost Highway, released in 1997, and just as he seemed to have disappeared into his own world he confounded many with the release of The Straight Story.

An absurdly simple story of one man's journey on a lawnmower across America, it revelled in its plainness and lack of deceiving sub-plots.

But just as the film world thought Lynch may have repented of his earlier need to confound, he released Mulholland Drive.

Dream and reality collide in his noir tale of a woman seeking her identity and if it appears like an undeveloped TV series that is precisely because it is an undeveloped TV series.

Quite what Lynch will do next is anyone's guess but it is sure to confound expectation.

It is also debatable whether Mulholland Drive will be to the taste of the acadamicians at the Oscars.

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See also:

11 Jan 02 | Film
Lynch heads Cannes judges
04 Jan 02 | Reviews
Lynch's Mulholland Drive mystifies
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