David Lynch catches big fish.

Sundance Channel salutes David Lynch this month with a series of screenings every Thursday, beginning this week with INLAND EMPIRE. See screening times and more.

Last week I was talking to a student about his screenplay and the “rules” of screenwriting, basically the formula that most stories get plugged into (you’ve got your “normality” and then “disturbance” in the first few pages and then the “first act turning point” … and so on). If you’re not familiar with it, please stay blissfully ignorant. It can make movie watching a little less fun when you can too easily predict exactly what is going to happen and when.

My own writing experience using this structure has run the gamut from… get-down-on-my-knees-thankfulness for the backbone it provides especially when you have a bunch of ideas that felt like loose body parts…. to feeling like creative choices have been reduced to something akin to the choices you hear parents give their kids… you can either eat your asparagus or go to bed (i.e. you can either do a strong first act turning point by page 30 or risk alienating your audience). But story structure is hard to knock, as a well structured movie moves and moves well.

“What about Lynch?” This is what my student asks me and I nod, right there with him because I love using Lynch as an example of a filmmaker who really flirts with the edge of structure and gets away with it (although not everyone appreciates his digression). Some of his films are more classically structured than others but in all of them he has this ability to veer off in unpredictable ways, and he’s been using it more and more. His most recent film INLAND EMPIRE is his most abstract work yet and perhaps his most direct assault of story structure. There are stories within stories. The realities are like endlessly mutable memories, and time seems flexible as events transpire in more than one place at one time.

So the question is how does he get away with it? Theme. Lynch uses theme like others use structure. In a Lynch movie, we immerse ourselves in a world that is unified by a powerful unflinching perspective and strong feelings that pervade every frame of film. See the loud insects scuffling underneath the perfectly manicured grass in the opening of BLUE VELVET, the darkness and evil beneath sweet facades, and you’ve just hooked into Lynch theme, its brooding conflict providing tension that keeps us (well a lot of us) hooked no matter what he does.

Sure he has elements of structure, he has “normality,” he has “disturbance” he has “twists and turns,” but they don’t necessarily come when or where you might expect them. His films don’t always resolve, but often cave in on themselves and/or split open into new stories as in MULHOLLAND DRIVE.

I saw him speak a few years ago about transcendental meditation. He talked about using meditation to go deep and catch “big fish” as he puts it, catch big ideas that lurk in the recesses of our consciousness. He’s also since recently written a book about this. I like the idea of Lynch fishing – the seed of his stories, a slithery wet subaquatic creature you’ve never seen before that under his watch slowly morphs and mutates into something astounding.