“I never interpret my art. I let the audience do that.”
David Lynch’s quiet refusal to discuss the meanings and symbols in his work makes it even more compelling for his audience to do so. Rife with apparent references to film noir, horror, 1950s suburbia, Surrealism, and Francis Bacon, Lynch’s work makes for a deliciously tantalizing tableaux of theories and critical standpoints. His use of music, explorations of sexual peccadilloes, and the influence of painting have been discussed at length by critics and writers over the years. Yet while many of us would instantly be able to call out visual cues taken from the sickly green and brown letterforms in the opening title sequence of Twin Peaks, surprisingly little has been written about Lynch’s use of typography across his career.
Lynch is a director so ingrained in our culture and counterculture that he has his own -ian suffix (how many film students dream of being described as Lynchian?) and the typeface choices made by his team are always fascinating, either hinting at or thwarting our ideas of the movie to come. He also dedicated one of his earliest works to letters:
In 1968, Lynch released a short film called “The Alphabet,” a characteristically disquieting piece of film that mixes child-like animation and live action. Naturally, there’s a mysterious woman, and what appears to be part of a dream sequence thought up by a sleeping young girl— it’s not exactly a learning aid. Letters emerge from figurative, Bacon-esque forms, accompanied by bizarre squawks and squeals, and barely audible snippets of conversation. Typography is not the focus here, though the film seems to be dipping toes in various art movements and practices: abstracted approaches to painting, Modernist grids and geometries, collage, faux-naif hand-drawn animation that calls to mind the work of Polish directors like Walerian Borowczyk. The film culminates in a girl singing her ABCs before spewing blood over her white nightdress and bedclothes.
Lettering here is less about design and forms, and more of a narrative device offering a sense of innocence that, in typical Lynchian style, soon morphs into something rather terrifying. Delineated in black and white, the letters dance about and are caught or scattered. They’re a catalyst for song and later for bloodshed, and then become a meaningless series of chants and symbols. The origins of the low-budget film ($1,000 all-in, legend has it) come from Lynch’s niece, who, he says, “was having a bad dream one night and was saying the alphabet in her sleep in a tormented way. That’s sort of what started “The Alphabet” going. The rest of it was just subconscious.”
A year before “The Alphabet,” Lynch unleashed “Six Men Getting Sick.” Type is used in a similar way here, merely as another tool to describe the unusual action of the film (it’s just as you’d expect from the title); the word “sick” flashes up with just enough lingering to be not quite subliminal, jarring with sketched faces and inkblots, which feel simultaneously like blips on VHS tapes and flagrant demonstrations of the artist’s hand at work.
What these typographic flirtations do aptly demonstrate is Lynch’s famous declaration of his reasons for getting into film: he wanted to see his paintings move. He was an advanced painting student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in Philadelphia, and “Six Men Getting Sick” was created there as a hybrid of painting, sculpture, sound, film, and installation.
When Lynch uses type for more traditional purposes, in title sequences and in credits, the design and placement of letters is highly significant. Returning to Twin Peaks, the moments that resonate the most could be said to appear in the opening sequences; in the hauntingly beautiful tones of Angelo Badalamenti’s theme score of course, but also in that instantly recognizable brown-and-green type.
The show is set to return this May, and when the announcement was made over Twitter that Lynch was working with co-creator Mark Frost on a new series, it was done so through the resurrection of that peculiarly luminous lettering. “25 years later,” it said, and “2016,” followed by Showtime’s logo.
The titles, designed by Pacific Titles (which did the titles for the original series as well as for Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me), are befitting of the Twin Peaks world, one characterized by an apparent sleepiness that masks dark undertones and unparalleled eccentricities. The titular fictional Pacific Northwestern town is rusty, fusty; the air thick with imagined pine scents and rural propriety. Yet the typography is rendered in a modern serif, outlining its traditional brown color with a garish nuclear green. It’s all caps, it serves as a warning: all that happens here–like the owls–are not as they seem.
According to various online sources, the font is ITC Avant Garde Gothic Condensed Demi Bold (though this hasn’t been officially confirmed), designed by Herb Lubalin’s design partner Tom Carnase. The face is drawn from the logotype of late 1960s magazine Avant Garde, and was later modified into condensed versions by Ed Benguiat in 1974. What’s interesting about the new teasers, Mark Sinclair points out in Creative Review, is that “it’s the same typeface alright, but it’s oblique.” By accident or design, that certainly sounds very Lynchian.
In Twin Peaks itself, type and letterforms play an important role in furthering the often confusing narrative. Killer Bob’s murder victims are found with cut-out letters under their fingernails, and these tiny slivers of type are seen throughout Lynch’s painting practice, too. So what’s the significance of lettering for Lynch? “The words in the paintings are sometimes important to make you start thinking about what else is going on in there. And a lot of times, the words excite me as shapes, and something’ll grow out of that,” he told Chris Rodley in an interview in Lynch on Lynch. “I used to cut these little letters out and glue them on. They just look good all lined up like teeth. I’d glue them on with this stuff that reminds me of ointment.
“The words change the way you perceive what’s happening in the picture. And they’re a nice balance to other things going on.”
“And sometimes they become the title of the painting. A word is also a texture. As you’re driving along you see wires, you see clouds and blue sky or smog, and you see many, many words and images. You see signs and weird lights and the people just get lost.”
The director’s predilection for the oblique, typographic or otherwise, is the thread that pulls together typographic choices across his oeuvre. In 1977’s Eraserhead, the titles use a vertically elongated, condensed version of Times New Roman. Delineated in a chalk-like white against black, this choice of traditional and upstanding letterforms is made spooky, in the monochrome horror tradition, yet also suggests a sort of upstanding rigor, of keeping up appearances. Of course, this is exactly what follows in the film itself: concerns about childbirth outside marriage abound, yet the baby in question is a sperm-like mutant. Innocent-seeming traditions—organ music, a couple’s first cohabitation and firstborn—are hijacked and replaced with horrific and terrifying new incarnations.
The style of the film itself is often compared to Luis Buñuel’s 1929 film Un Chien Andalou, which uses a far more avant-garde typeface (and is arguably more visually shocking than Eraserhead). According to Erica Sheen & Annette Davison’s The Cinema of David Lynch: American Dreams, Nightmare Visions, Lynch screened Billy Wilder’s 1950 film noir Sunset Boulevard for his actors and crew before starting shooting on Eraserhead. “There wasn’t anything in particular about it that related to Eraserhead,” Lynch told Rodley. “It was just a black and white experience of a certain mood.”
Nothing in Lynch’s work is there by accident (or so we like to think), yet he plays with Hollywood stylistic traditions so convincingly that many feel certain parts of his films are created through the lens of irony, as I had thought in relation to the sickly serif swirls of the Blue Velvet titles (Snell Roundhand, apparently). But as Nicholas Rombes puts it in his essay, Blue Velvet Underground: David Lynch’s Post-Punk Poetic, his work is often “playing the serious so seriously that audiences assume the films must be parodic.”
This classic, and perhaps even clichéd typographic choice isn’t a symbol of postmodern posturing then: it’s a confident nod towards traditional cinematic language. Lynch himself said, “I don’t really understand the word ‘irony’ too much.” But even if we’re agreed that Lynch’s films aren’t “ironic” or “postmodern,” that doesn’t mean that Lynch’s worlds deal in reality. They distort the everyday things that are supposed to comfort or ground us by wrangling the eccentric or grotesque from what should be so ordinary. Perhaps in his use of such historically approved typography, he’s doing the same: setting up something familiar only to destabilize it later. As Anne Jerslev puts it in Beyond Boundaries: David Lynch’s Lost Highway, “Normality always carries the traces of perversion.”
Lynch’s 2001 masterpiece, Mulholland Drive, features perhaps his most arresting example of typographic symbolism. The film takes the form of a neo-noir exploration of the darker underbelly of the Hollywood dream, told through visions, doublings, drugged hallucinations, and sapphic twists and turns. Spoiler alert: it culminates in the suicide of failed actress Diane Selwyn, who becomes crazed by her disillusionment with the Hollywood dream.
She’s the key to the choice of typeface in the film’s title credits, which borrows the style of Hollywood’s famous white letters. In 1932, bit-part actress Peg Entwistle hung herself from the Hollywood Sign when she failed to get a studio contract—a fact known to be in Lynch’s mind when he was making the film. Though the letters are presented as though on the road sign for the actual Mulholland Drive, this is of course an illusion—the real signage does not mimic those hulking Hollywood forms. The typography acts as a narrative signifier: Entwistle’s death on the sign prefigures the film’s explorations of the dangers of being taken in by the huge, shining illusions around fame and fortune.
In another interview with Chris Rodley, Lynch revealed that in making Mulholland Drive, it was the letters that came first:
“It was just those words, ‘Mulholland Drive.’ When you say some words, pictures form, and in this case what formed was what you see at the beginning of the film; a sign at night, headlights on the sign and a trip up a road. This makes me dream, and these images are like magnets and they pull other ideas to them.”
Whereas directors like Woody Allen, the Cohen Brothers, and even Jean-Luc Godard used signature type styles across their output, Lynch doesn’t; underscoring his status as an auteur genuinely engaging with his subconscious by moving effortlessly between references to classic cinema, transgressive surrealism, and obvious visual cues. With his typography so rarely discussed, we must come to our own conclusions about what it all means. As Lynch puts it, “people’s minds hold things and form conclusions with indications;” and as Fred Madison echoes in Lost Highway: “I prefer to remember things my own way.”