David Lynch’s standing as one of the world’s premier living film artists — up there with Martin Scorsese, Steven Spielberg, and Béla Tarr, among others — is without question. So when a retrospective promising to exhibit all of his feature films is set at the IFC Center, it’s a major event indeed. After all, the opportunity to see a movie as tactilely atmospheric as “Mulholland Drive” on a big screen — and in 35 millimeter, no less — can only compare to one’s own dreams in terms of sensory bewilderment.
They’re all on the roster starting May 17, each of his 10 movie releases playing for several days, along with a program of his shorts, such as “The Alphabet,” his student film offering “Sesame Street” via Salvador Dalí that anticipates “The Exorcist.” Also included is the new documentary “Lynch/Oz,” which explores the influence “The Wizard of Oz” has had on the director. The doc posits that, deliberately or subconsciously, Mr. Lynch owes much of his fascination with duality, sleeping, and the human id to the classic movie.
While each of his films is unique and unclassifiable in its own way, thematic recurrences appear even if one has time for only a double feature. Take Mr. Lynch’s version of “Dune” from 1984 and his last major movie, 2006’s “Inland Empire.” You might not think that a big-budget studio picture of a beloved sci-fi novel has much in common with a character-focused indie movie, yet similarities abound. From labyrinthine set design to moments of telepathy and clairvoyance, both films demonstrate how the best artists maintain a throughline in all their divergent work.
The one outlier to his cohesion could be “The Straight Story,” Mr. Lynch’s 1999 movie about an elderly man driving a tractor for hundreds of miles in order to re-connect with an ailing brother. His sole film to receive a “G” rating, it was even distributed by Disney. Incorporating a fairly “straight” narrative, the film nevertheless shares a sensibility with “Wild at Heart” and “Lost Highway” in its fascination with the open road. Also, there are similarities with his earliest movies like “Eraserhead” and “The Elephant Man” in their glimpses at fractured families and physical frailty.
Having studied for a time at the Philadelphia Academy of Fine Arts, which presented many of his paintings, sculptures, and shorts in an exhibition a few years ago, Mr. Lynch completed his first feature-length movie (“Eraserhead”) in 1976 at the relatively late age of 30. During the next three decades, he worked steadily, including directing the cult classic “Blue Velvet” while also crafting one of the seminal shows to influence “Golden Age” television: “Twin Peaks.” After its cancellation in 1991, he would revisit the fictional, fantastical town through the movie prequel “Twin Peak: Fire Walk With Me,” also on the retrospective docket.
With “Twin Peaks” arguably Mr. Lynch’s most famous visual creation, it’s a shame that the original two seasons of the show won’t be screened. They still look more cinematic than most Netflix shows, and Mr. Lynch himself called its long-delayed third season “a feature film in 18 parts.” Still, the IFC Center should be commended for bringing together a majority of his filmic work to allow audiences to consider the artist holistically, proving that, in Mr. Lynch’s case, the whole is both weirder and greater than the sum of its parts.