David Lynch: film-maker and visual artist by Allister Mactaggart

David Lynch started to make films as an art student in the mid-1960s at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia because he wanted a painting that “would really be able to move.” This fine art sensibility has persisted throughout his film-making career in which he has produced a singular and remarkable body of work which crosses the borders between different art forms and thus challenges some of the tenets of film theory as it currently stands.

In Lynch’s practice the film set is treated as a living painting which changes and develops via intuition and experimentation as the work is made. This fine art approach is apparent from his first feature film, Eraserhead (1976), through to his experimental pieces on his website,, and becomes even more pronounced in the labyrinthine digital film-making of INLAND EMPIRE (2006). The open nature of much of the work also provides a space for the viewer to become enmeshed in the complexities of what is presented on screen, and who can thereby become an ‘extra’ by becoming embroiled in the continuing life of the films as audiences critically engage with them, in print and digital forms, producing supplementary knowledge beyond the rigidities of an auteur approach to film studies.

The connection between startling individual images and diachronic narrative in these films creates a dialectic that problematizes the relationship between different art forms, and which may, partly, account for the wide divergence of critical responses to these films as they cross boundaries between film and fine art. In box office terms some of the films might be considered wilful failures, such as the seemingly paradoxical decision to make a prequel feature film, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992), after the television series had been stopped, but this is a film the director felt compelled to make and whose critical reputation has in fact grown over the years. These films are situated within the North American film industry, but at its edges, and which perhaps explains some of the responses to the work.  His later films, particularly Mulholland Drive (2001) and INLAND EMPIRE (2006), critique the history of the industry and particularly, Hollywood, from the position of women damaged by their attempts to become film stars.

In a practice that fully embraces new technology it will be fascinating to see where Lynch goes next. For him the freedom that digital technology provides brings film-making and painting closer together as greater creative control is brought into the film-maker’s hands.  This increased freedom is also present for the viewer, in terms of interactions with the film text in the cinema, on DVD and the internet, in either a professional or amateur capacity, in which the continued engagement with this body of work provides these ‘extra’ voices with an expanding, unfolding space for critical interactions to extend the life of the films and to provide supplementary knowledge.

The end results of Lynch’s film paintings are always startling; continually moving, changing shape and creating new forms; no wonder they elicit such strong reactions, as this short extract from INLAND EMPIRE indicates.


Allister Mactaggart is author of The Film Paintings of David Lynch


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