A retrospective of David Lynch's work in the city that haunts him

A still from David Lynch's 1966 short film "Six Figures Getting Sick." The film will screen in an installationin its original space at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
A still from David Lynch's 1966 short film "Six Figures Getting Sick." The film will screen in an installationin its original space at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. (Courtesy of David Lynch)
Posted: August 18, 2014

"I just have to think of Philadelphia now, and I get ideas, I hear the wind, and I'm off into the darkness somewhere." - David Lynch

The pulsing heart of "David Lynch: The Unified Field" - the career retrospective of art and experimental film from the man who dreamed up the movies Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, and the television series Twin Peaks - lies at the intersection of Broad and Cherry Streets, in the 1870s Frank Furness-designed Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts. That's where this ambitious show will be housed from Sept. 13 to Jan. 11.

It also is where Lynch, age 20 in 1966, studied painting and drawing, walking or riding his bike from his frayed apartment at 13th and Wood Streets, a few blocks to the north and east and catty-corner to the old city morgue.

With Lynch's blessing, however, "The Unified Field" will expand well beyond the landmark Victorian museum and its collection of Thomas Eakins and Winslow Homer works. Back on Lynch's old stamping ground, an area dubbed "Eraserhood" in his honor (with a website and Facebook page to prove it), PhilaMOCA - a 19th-century mausoleum showroom turned multipurpose art and performance venue - will host Lynch-related events tied to the PAFA exhibit through September, such as the burlesque performer Miss Rose doing Lynch-inspired numbers, and, yes, an Elephant Man stand-up comedy act.

A few blocks south of the academy, the Philadelphia Film Society will mount a retrospective series of every Lynch feature film, from 1977's hushed, ghostly Eraserhead to the surreal parallel narratives of his most recent full-length enigma, 2006's Inland Empire. The program, housed mostly at the Prince Music Theater, bleeds, so to speak, into the annual Philadelphia Film Festival in mid-October.

International House in University City will screen "David Lynch Selects," a monthly program of films handpicked by the artist/filmmaker/photographer/composer/coffee merchant/Transcendental Meditation spokesman himself. The selections - Stanley Kubrick's Lolita, Billy Wilder's Sunset Blvd., Jacques Tati's Mon Oncle - all make perfect sense. Another I-House program will offer "The Lynchian Aesthetic."

The Bryn Mawr Film Institute will screen The Elephant Man (1980), Blue Velvet (1986), and Lynch's neo-noir dream Mulholland Drive (2001).

Over at the Rodger LaPelle Studio in Old City, another cache of Lynch artwork will be on exhibit, including his 1966 5-by-5-foot acrylic in black and gray, Sick Man (with Elephantine Arm). During his time at the academy, and before he moved with his first wife and daughter to Los Angeles in 1971, Lynch learned to make prints with LaPelle and artist Christine McGinnis in their Germantown carriage house. In Eraserhead - shot in L.A. but culled from Lynch's experiences here - Henry (Jack Nance), the impassive protagonist with the sky-high hair who wanders through clanging industrial scapes, works at the LaPelle printing factory.

Lynch himself will be in town the week of "The Unified Field" PAFA opening to bask in all the, well, Philadelphia-ness. On Sept. 10, he'll sit down at the Prince Music Theater for a screening of Lost Highway (1997) sponsored by the Philadelphia Film Society. On Sept. 12, he'll attend the members-only preview of his eponymous show at the academy. The next night, he's scheduled for a conversation with former Inquirer film critic Carrie Rickey at the Bryn Mawr Film Institute.

"I've been amazed at how game he's been," said Robert Cozzolino, who curated "The Unified Field" and reached out, industriously, to the PAFA show's partners. He'll lead the Lynch conversation there on Sept. 12. "This place means a lot to him."

But if you aren't among the fans who already have tickets for the film society's Prince event, forget it.

"Oh man, it sold out in 36 hours," said Andrew Greenblatt, the film society's executive director. "I honestly never anticipated the response. I knew people would be excited . . . but it's just incredible. We're a little sad that we only have 450 seats. . . .

"It's not your Kevin Smith following, or even your Quentin Tarantino following. It's actually really broad. There are a lot of film aficionados who are in this cult - if you want to call it a cult."

The David Lynch convergence extends even beyond the PAFA exhibition, its satellite events, and LaPelle's gallery. On July 29, Twin Peaks - The Entire Mystery was released in a boxed Blu-ray edition; it collects the complete 1990-91 TV series, the prequel film, Fire Walk With Me, and nearly 90 minutes of deleted/alternate scenes from the spooky soap opera full of murder and cherry pie.

Criterion has readied a restored Blu-ray of Eraserhead supervised by Lynch with all sorts of extras and a half-dozen shorts, including "Six Figures Getting Sick" (1966), "The Alphabet" (1968), and "The Grandmother" (1970), all made when he was in Philadelphia. (PAFA has created a special installation space where visitors can view "Six Figures Getting Sick" more or less in the same setting Lynch created for his colleagues and teachers way back when.) The Criterion box is to be released Sept. 16.

Even 2 A.M. at the Cat's Pajamas, a Philadelphia-set novel written by Northeast native Marie-Helene Bertino, and just out from Crown Books, has a Lynchian undertow. The heavily promoted book begins with an epigraph by Lynch about the city where he lived for those formative, and transformative years:

"Yes, [Philadelphia is] horrible, but in a very interesting way. There were places there that had been allowed to decay, where there was so much fear and crime that just for a moment there was an opening to another world."

Bertino, based in Brooklyn now, has long been a Lynch fan, but she didn't know about his connection - physical and spiritual - to  her hometown until last year. Then she stumbled on the Lynch quote.

"It perfectly encapsulated that magic that floats around the edges of some serious depravity that goes on in Philadelphia," she said.

For PAFA's Cozzolino, collaborating with Lynch on "The Unified Field" has been revelatory.

"One of the most important stories about the David Lynch project, for me, is that Philadelphia has consistently been really critical to shaping modern and contemporary cultures, and this is one of those stories," Cozzolino said.

"The thing that he said to me early on is that painting has really been the constant. That's been the thing that's always been there, the thing he is grounded in. So I've shaped this project to be about how David Lynch is an artist, and film just happens to be one of those things that he makes, as a creative expression."


For Information

Free Library of Philadelphia

1901 Vine St.

www.freelibrary.org/authorevents

215-567-4341.


It's a David Lynch World

"David Lynch: The Unified Field," Sept. 13 to Jan. 11, and companion events. Check with respective venues for specific date, time, and ticket information.

Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 118 N. Broad St. www.pafa.org or 215-972-7600

Bryn Mawr Film Institute, 824 W. Lancaster Ave. www.brynmawrfilm.org or 610-527-9898

International House, 3701 Chestnut St. www.ihousephilly.org or 215-387-5125

Philadelphia Film Society at the Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut St. www.filmadelphia.org, or princemusictheater.org/film/lynch. (Tickets for the PFS Lynch events can also be purchased in person at the PFS Roxy Theater, 2023 Sansom St.)

PhilaMOCA (Philadelphia Mausoleum of Contemporary Art), 531 N. 12th St. www.philamoca.org or 267-519-9651

Rodger LaPelle Gallery, 122 N. Third St. www.rodgerlapellegalleries.com or 215-592-0232


srea@phillynews.com

215-854-5629 @Steven_Rea

www.inquirer.com/onmovies

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