Dreaming and the Cinema of David Lynch

As discussed earlier, the basic narrative structure of Mulholland Drive is patterned on dream experience, and yet nowhere else in the film are dreams or dreaming explicitly mentioned—only in the Winkie’s scene. This suggests that an additional level of truth revealed in Dan’s dream is a truth about the film as a whole. The lone discussion of dreams becomes the key (so to speak) to opening a new way of understanding everything that happens in the movie.

Lynch’s Use of His Own Dreams and the Dreams of Others. Several filmmakers have described particular instances in which they have drawn on their own dreams or the dreams of other people they knew to shape and influence their movies (see, for example, James Pagel’s article in the present issue of dreams in the filmmaking of John Sayles). It comes as no surprise that Lynch also draws upon dreams in this way. Here are two examples.

1. One of Lynch’s first film projects, The Alphabet (1968), is a four-minute work showing a girl lying in bed at night tormented by the letters of the alphabet. When asked where he came up with the idea for The Alphabet Lynch said, “My wife Peggy’s niece was having a bad dream one night and was saying the alphabet in her sleep in a tormented way. So that’s sort of what started The Alphabet going…. It just struck me that learning, instead of being something that’s a happy process, is turned around to being almost like a nightmarish process, so it gives people dreams—bad dreams. So The Alphabet is a little nightmare about the fear connected with learning.” (Rodley, 1997)

2. After the disappointment of the big studio project Dune, Lynch’s next film was the artistic breakthrough Blue Velvet, an aesthetically stunning movie that generated enormous controversy for its “frank” portrayal of sado-masochistic sexuality. Lynch says it was a while before the full story of Blue Velvet took shape in his imagination: “The early drafts were terrible, so I wrote at least two more. The fourth draft was almost finished, and I was sitting in a building waiting to go into an office in some studio. I don’t even know why I was there. I was sitting on a bench and suddenly I remembered this dream that I’d had the night before. And the dream was the ending to Blue Velvet. The dream gave me the police radio; the dream gave me Frank’s disguise; the dream gave me the gun in the yellow man’s jacket; the dream gave me the scene where Jeffrey was in the back of Dorothy’s apartment, sending the wrong message, knowing Frank would hear it. I don’t know how it happened, but I just had to plug and change a few things to bring it all together. Everything else had been done except that.” (Rodley, 1997)

In describing his filmmaking process Lynch continuously refers to his reliance on “accidents and strange things” ((Rodley, 1997). Rather than seeing such unplanned happenings as impediments to the execution of his preordained plan, he takes them as opportunities to include something new and fresh into the ongoing work. He’s a bricoleur in Levi-Strauss’ sense of using whatever bits and pieces of material are ready at hand, all in the service of a personal creative vision. This openness to serendipitous events and chance occurrences flows naturally from his understanding of dreams (When Blue Velvet came out, New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael said “Lynch might turn out to be the first populist surrealist—a Franz Capra of dream logic” (Hughes, 2001)), and in this sense his films truly are products of his own personal “dream factory.” Indeed, Lynch’s fascination with factories, machinery, and industrialization comes through in his photography and in many of his films, and the complexity of bodily functioning has led him to comment, “human beings are like little factories” (Rodley, 1997, 103).

When asked directly if dreaming is important in his own personal life, Lynch answered: “Waking dreams are the ones that are important, the ones that come when I’m quietly sitting in a chair, gently letting my mind wander. When you sleep, you don’t control your dream. I like to dive into a dream world that I’ve made or discovered; a world I choose.” (Rodley, 1997, 15). He is explicit in his use of hypnogogic states as a means of generating new ideas (see (Rodley, 1997), 14, 18, 48, 49, 102, 150, 222). Lynch likens himself to a radio: “It all comes in from somewhere else, like I was a radio. But I’m a bad radio, so sometimes the parts don’t hook together (Rodley, 1997). This is how he explains what enabled him to turn to disappointment of ABC rejecting the Mulholland Drive pilot into a feature film: “One night, I sat down around 6:30 and closed my eyes, and in came, over the next half-hour, all these ideas. And by 7 o’clock I was a happy camper. The new ideas married with what had gone before, but they changed the angle of seeing it: they affected the beginning, the middle and the end. I felt so lucky and blessed that those things came in. It was kind of unbelievable. I wasn’t even thinking about Mulholland Drive, then—bango!—the door opened and there they were” (Rafferty, 2002). Rafferty comments that Lynch “speaks of ideas as if they were things entirely outside him, buzzing in the air like the insects he uses as part of the texture of his paintings. He speaks of them the way a devout Christian speaks of grace” (Rafferty, 2002). Later in this interview Lynch says he strongly believes in the potential of everyone to tap into these creative energies: “’Intuition is alive and well in people,’ he says excitedly. ‘Your use it all the time in daily life, and that means you get an inner knowing, which isn’t always able to be expressed in words. I’m convinced—maybe because I want to be—that people do have that inner knowing when they see abstraction in film. And they should trust that feeling. With intuition, it’s the detective in us that comes alive.” (Rafferty, 2002)


Even in this relatively short space, I believe the examples provided are more than sufficient to demonstrate that dreams and dreaming are primary inspirations for the filmmaking of David Lynch. From the original ideas through the shaping of his stories, the filming of particular images, and the dialogue spoken by his characters, Lynch’s films offer as deep an immersion in the world of dreams as can be found in the work of any other contemporary director.

The question remains, then, of the minimal commercial success of his works. His one big-budget venture was a flop, and none of his movies have earned major financial success. Even Mulholland Drive had a very modest run in the theaters, and its commercial fate was foreseen in its initial production troubles: originally produced as a television series for ABC, it was ultimately cancelled because of the network’s concerns that its strange plot and slow pacing would not attract a wide enough audience (Hughes, 2001). Despite the existence of several fan clubs zealously devoted to Lynch and his works, it would be hard to argue that his films, for all their creative wizardry, have had much impact on contemporary American society.

Nevertheless, Lynch has been successful enough to continue producing large-scale works with tremendous artistic freedom, which indicates that some degree of financial reward has come of his work. But having said that, commercial success is clearly not the best standard to use in evaluating the influence of Lynch’s films. I would suggest the true impact of his films involves something less tangible, but ultimately more powerful: his films create a sense of radical openness to the world, a total embracing of all its beauty and wonder, all its horror and suffering, all its humor and absurdity. Put more simply, his films make people dream. Thinking of this influence in negative terms, Lynch’s movies highlight what so many other contemporary films are not—i.e., original, daring, challenging. In this sense Hollywood is a dream factory in the worst possible way, producing generic, homogenized fantasies that constrain the imagination and stunt the spirit. This is precisely where the cultural significance of Lynch’s work lies. The simple fact that he is out there doing the strange, dreamy things he does, is an influential reminder of the potential of cinema to evoke the transformational otherness of real dreaming, to use film as a way of provoking new imaginative creativity instead of cynically steering people’s dreams into morally compliant and commercially profitable channels. In Lynch’s work the notion of “the dream factory” comes to life in a much more stimulating and liberating way, as he creates works that defy conventional genres, stimulate emotions of profound intensity and startling complexity, and draw viewers into a world where anything is possible, where ordinary rationality is suspended, where it’s impossible to predict what’s going to happen next. Lynch has said a theme in many of his creative works is “life in darkness and confusion” (Rodley, 1997, 20, 243), and I regard that as a wonderfully poetic expression of the very essence of dreaming—both the kind that occurs within our private imaginations and the kind that occasionally appears before us on the silver screen.

Doniger, W. (2001). Western Dreams about Eastern Dreams. In K. Bulkeley (Ed.), Dreams: A Reader on the Religious, Cultural, and Psychological Dimensions of Dreaming. New York: Palgrave.

Hughes, D. (2001). The Complete Lynch. London: Virgin.

Oppenheim, A. L. (1956). The Interpretation of Dreams in the Ancient Near East with a Translation of an Assyrian Dream-Book. Transactions of the American Philosophical Society, 46(3), 179-343.

Rafferty, T. (2002, March 10). In a Weird Way, David Lynch Makes Sense. The New York Times, p. 18.

Rodley, C. (Ed.). (1997). Lynch on Lynch. London: Faber and Faber.

7 Replies to “Dreaming and the Cinema of David Lynch”

  1. Dear Ms Kelly Bulkeley,

    I would like to read more of this article for a presentation I would like to make for my studies at university. (I study American culture and literature. Unfortunately, I do not have access to this journal at my University in Germany and I would really appreciate a copy of it.

    Thank you very much.
    Best regards:

    Viki Lassu

  2. Please ignore my last comment, I found a way to read the whole article. It was just invisible because of the design but by highlighting it one can read it easily. Thanks.

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