Is David Lynch’s 1980 drama his greatest cinematic achievement?
David Lynch’s recent Twin Peaks revival took everything that made the landmark original ABC series so memorable and went even further into the ether, with the unobstructed non-network outlet (the series is a Showtime production) allowing Lynch to go as gonzo as he wanted to, respecting fan expectations while radically expanding and inverting that world, lapsing into the avant garde, totally liberated. It was mesmerizing. Energizing. Because out of all the elite directors who managed to infiltrate the Hollywood machine, Lynch remains one of the few that were working artists first, visionaries who developed a language all their own during a formative time and who use that singular creative dialect to make films their way, only giving cursory consideration to the suits who kept blind eyes on him, hoping to keep his work at least somewhat commercial.
And while seeing this new Twin Peaks stand tall as the pure, unfiltered wellspring of the Lynchian aesthetic, citing the times when Lynch has had to collaborate and enlist a more disciplined approach to his vision, yields no real criticism. I mean, the fact that Twin Peaks ever ended up on general stream network television in 1990 at all, is a marvel. It was way out there and defied what anyone wanted or expected from a prime time program. But going even further back, right back to 1980, to Lynch’s second feature film, we see what might very well be his greatest achievement, a movie that he was brought into and yet was given enough of a long creative leash to ensure that the motion picture he was hired to make, was indeed his and yet was also greater than him. A movie that likely educated the director and taught him that introducing strong human emotion into his nightmarescapes and populating the frames with the finest of performers, could result in a work that was art and product in equal measure.
That movie was The Elephant Man, Lynch’s follow-up to his fearless, unclassifiable midnight sensation Eraserhead. And 38 years later, looking back, it’s still a bold, brave and immaculately produced motion picture that offers the best of what Lynch could do and bears early evidence of the tropes and themes that would define his subsequent works.