The most unique experimental stylist to enter the mainstream since Luis Buñuel, writer-director David Lynch, in startling films such as Mulholland Drive and the breakthrough TV series Twin Peaks, mixes seemingly placid images of everyday life with glimpses of the waking nightmare he shows to be lurking just beneath its surface. Lynch, the guest artistic director of this year's AFI Fest, has curated a program of films that reflect his talent and imagination.
It will begin with Eraserhead, Lynch's 1976 black-and-white debut feature, produced when Lynch was a student at AFI. Jack Nance stars as Henry, a wild-haired “everyman” whose life of quiet urban desperation is made more desperate when he's saddled with a deformed baby. A classic midnight movie, helping to define the genre of films so offbeat as to require a nocturnal setting and a devoted cultlike following, Eraserhead will be shown for once during the day.
Lynch has described the sidebar as a collection of “the films that have inspired me most,” and for much of the program, the parallels to Lynch's own work are plain to see. Sunset Boulevard, Billy Wilder's masterful portrait of Hollywood via life inside the enormous mansion of faded, mentally unstable silent star Norma Desmond (Gloria Swanson), was an obvious influence on Lynch's look at contemporary moviemaking, Inland Empire — in which Laura Dern plays a seemingly levelheaded actress living in a house as big as Desmond's while starring in a film whose resemblance to her own life begins to unhinge her.
There are traces of Ingmar Bergman's Hour of the Wolf, a kind of art-house horror story about a man (Max Von Sydow) beset by his own mental demons and troubled memories, in Lynch's equally neurotic Lost Highway — including the suggestion of a violation of the space-time continuum.
Two of Lynch's selections seem like ancestors of his own Blue Velvet. Hitchcock's classic thriller Rear Window, with Jimmy Stewart investigating a murder he suspects was committed in the apartment across from his own, could serve as a template for Velvet's voyeuristic jamboree, as could Stanley Kubrick's Lolita, with its images of suburban calm pulsating with dark erotic longing.
The seeming “odd man out” of the series is Jacques Tati's cheery comedy Mon Oncle, the tale of the amiably bumbling Monsieur Hulot's encounters with modernity in the form of his brother's gadget-filled house. But Lynch learned a lot from this French master about camera placement, cutting and, in an odd way, atmosphere. Eraserhead's Henry is in some ways Lynch's own Monsieur Hulot. The sunny Hulot and the gloomy Henry are both misfits who cannot assimilate. Hulot can't cope with the modern world of his brother's house — he can only bring inadvertent chaos to it. Henry has equal difficulty with the monstrous baby — and in the end destroys it. They're really two sides of the same coin.
Eraserhead screens at 3:30 p.m. on Sat., Nov. 6, at the Egyptian Theatre.