Defiantly sui generis and unorthodox as he’s always seemed, it may be that David Lynch has by now become a paradigmatic voice of our times. What has long been labelled ‘Lynchian’, instead of merely ruling over our culture’s more delicious margins, might be instead how modern life feels for most of us – a clotted dream of irrational seizures and psychosexual secrets and desires wracked by incomprehensible forces. Certainly, the rise of his crepuscular masterpiece Mulholland Dr. up the new poll’s canonical ladder – 20 rungs, from 28 in 2012 – suggests that we’re coming around to accepting Lynch’s disorienting voice as paradigmatic, even necessary.
Having begun as a post-Twin Peaks TV pilot, dumped by ABC and expanded upon into something completely different, Lynch’s film is his gay Anna Karenina (1878), his Hollywood death dive, his final salute to the legacy mysteries of Vertigo (1958) and his deepest dish of metaphysical tragedy. In the deftest of the filmmaker’s gnomic bifurcations, the movie’s flow runs from network-gloss irony, through a tunnel of angst, to a Sapphic wander through Desolation Row, with its two heroines (Naomi Watts and Laura Harring) also doubled up, playing out two contrasting narratives, each potentially and mysteriously the psychic B-side of the other. Identity, in Hollywood, is a quantum reality, a fact that meets Lynch’s lust for instability head on. Perhaps that is the resonating clue as to the film’s ascendant critical regard: its essential, unreasonable slipperiness, its fierce embrace of uncertainty and the indeterminate, speaks more to our fraught present, 21 years later, than it did to its heyday during the pre-9/11 Bush administration. (Not that it wasn’t beloved then, reaping dozens of criticgroup awards and getting Lynch an Oscar nomination for Best Director.)
The film’s unironic payload of wrenching heartbreak, swimming up from a swampy dream of ironic strangeness, is singular in his oeuvre, as if the vulnerabilities of young women in the twisty roads and dusty hills of the American movie struck him in ways that the dark plight of smalltown Lumberton/ Twin Peaks high-schoolers didn’t quite? Perhaps. But it’s still a maddening, freaky, mysterious thing, seductively interpretable but, ultimately, Lynchianly resistant to final readings. That’s integral to its allure, too. It’s like a hieroglyph you’re always on the verge of translating or a lover’s sphinx-like expression in bed that suggests betrayal, devotion or something in between.