David Lynch and Surrealism: Deconstruction of the ‘Lynchian’ Label

In a new Facets video essay, Contributors Eric Guzman and Zach Devroy dissect David Lynch’s relationship with surrealism and the ensuing popularity of the ‘Lynchian’ label.


With the return of Twin Peaks to primetime television, David Lynch has once again risen to the spotlight as a champion of surrealism. His film and television work in the 80’s and 90’s helped popularize surrealism to mainstream audiences, with the term “Lynchian” becoming synonymous with anything even remotely surrealist. However, while Lynch was, in fact, heavily influenced by surrealist thought and imagery, he is by no means a purist. His work often both subverts and contradicts traditional surrealism and as a consequence, the term “Lynchian” serves as an inapt descriptor for most contemporary surrealist art, thereby leading to the question, “What defines ‘Lynchian’?” and “Why has it become the dominant surrealist identity?”

To begin with, let’s start with a brief history of surrealism and its relation to film. Although misunderstood by many to mean anything weird, strange or nonsensical, surrealism is an artistic movement that originated in the 1920’s in Paris that sought to rectify the boundaries between dreams and reality in order to establish a higher or super reality. Characterized by juxtaposition, surprise and illogical imagery, surrealism rose to prominence in conjunction with the rise of early cinema. Surrealists like Andre Breton, the author of the Surrealist manifesto, were fascinated by film’s ability to disorient and abstract the viewer from his own reality. Due to the motion picture camera’s advanced technical capabilities, film became the principal medium for surrealist expression. Effects such as slow motion, superimposition and shallow depth of field enabled one to manipulate reality, (re)presenting it to illustrate a new dreamlike vision. Through film, surrealists were free to showcase their new reality onto the silver screen, projecting their dreams and waking fantasies without limitations or restraint.

Following its inception, surrealism continued to pervade European and, subsequently, American cinema, eventually reaching commercial success through the work of filmmakers such as Luis Bunuel, Federico Fellini and Alejandro Jodorowsky.  However, surrealism would not reach mainstream success in the United States until the arrival of Missoula, Montana native David Lynch. Often considered to be the first popular surrealist, Lynch helped bring surrealism to the attention of everyday American audiences. After the underground midnight movie success of perhaps his most surrealist film, Eraserhead, Lynch garnered mass public appeal through a slew of critical and commercial successes including Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks and Mulholland Drive, each of which explores the relationship between the serene and obscene in an aestheticized America. David Foster Wallace, in describing Lynch’s work, coined the term “Lynchian” which he defined as “a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter.” Since then, the term “Lynchian” has been utilized ceaselessly to describe various films, music and art, often irrespective of Wallace’s definition. This, in turn, has led to a dilution of the term and thus, a vague general understanding of what “Lynchian” even means.

Structurally speaking, the term “Lynchian” refers to a hybrid form between a type of modified surrealism and Lynch’s own distinct cinematic style. While Lynch draws a great amount of inspiration from surrealism, from its shocking imagery to its usage of juxtaposition, he does so in a manner that contradicts the fundamental conceit of surrealism: the rejection of normalcy. As aforementioned, surrealism aims to free the viewer from his reality by tapping into the dreams of the unconscious. This is most evidently seen in the dream sequence in Alfred Hitchcock’s Spellbound, designed by Salvador Dali. Lynch, in contrast, grounds his surrealism in normalcy, externalizing the projections of the unconscious onto his characters’ everyday reality. As written by Wallace, Lynch contains the macabre within the mundane, with the reveal of the surreal being the driving force of the narrative. Blue Velvet, for example, perfectly encapsulates Lynch’s style of surrealism as it follows the city of Lumberton from the opening shots of its clean cut, picturesque portrayal to the dark, seedy interior of its crime-ridden underground. In this, Lynch represents the violent, sexual desires of the unconscious into the character of Frank Booth, who disrupts the uniformity and tranquility of Lumberton and exposes it as a façade of reality. Although Lynch opposes surrealism’s objection to normalcy, he still manages to achieve surrealism’s ambitions of surreality, challenging the traditional depiction of reality, while still retaining traditional structures of storytelling that are accessible by all.

Moreover, Lynch’s stylistic influences and choices strengthen his surrealist vision. His passion for painting, in particular his adoration for Francis Bacon and Edward Hopper, directs his visual imagery and recurring motifs. His depictions of deformity, conformity and of red, whether it is curtains, lips or a room, are all influenced by past art. In addition, his special attention to sound design confers upon inanimate objects a supernatural sense or power. It is through this specialization of sound and imagery that Lynchian surrealism finds its strength, as it simultaneously both disorients and connects the viewer to a specific feeling or emotion. Perhaps this is what makes the “Lynchian” label so popular. In Lynch’s films we recognize these towns, people and emotions as our own, yet Lynch’s abstraction of these facets of our everyday life mesmerizes as much as it mystifies. We cannot, and may not, ever understand the lady in the radiator, the mystery man or Lynch himself, but ultimately, they are undoubtedly a part of us.

Author: Eric Guzman is a writer from LA that studies film in Chicago. This summer he is the editorial intern at Facets.

Video editor: Zach Devroy is a senior at Columbia College Chicago where he is studying Cinema Arts and Sciences. This summer he is the Media Archivist Intern at Facets.

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