LA Weekly, October 19 2001
Getting Lost Is Beautiful - The light and dark world of David Lynch
By John Powers LA Weekly Writer
DAVID LYNCH AND I ARE SITTING HIGH UP in his aerielike studio talking about one of his favorite topics.
"I love concrete," he says. "Concrete is very strong. It can be very smooth and make beautiful, minimal shapes."
He's just launching into a story about the genius of his concrete trowler, Renaldo, who can give a wall a burnished surface full of marvelous shapes and shades, when the phone rings. It's his 9-year-old son, Riley.
"You want to do what?" Lynch barks. "Ride your skateboard into the swimming pool? Of course you can't." He shakes his head. "What did you think I'd say?"
As they talk, I think about how weird it would be to have David Lynch as your dad.
TO TALK SERIOUSLY ABOUT LYNCH IS TO BEGIN with his enthusiasms.
"Look at this," he says one hot August morning. He shows me a photograph of a dilapidated industrial building. "I took it last December in Lodz, Poland. I was at this film festival, Camerimage, and it was so much fun. In the daytime we'd shoot factories, and at night we'd shoot nudes."
Factories and nudes, nudes and factories -- of such strange oppositions is Lynch's imagination made. His movies are torn between light and dark, blonde and brunette, goofy and primal, avant-garde and retro, the radiantly transcendent and the downright icky. And this sense of duality carries into his daily existence. Lynch jealously guards his privacy but parades his innermost kinks onscreen for the whole world to see. He invariably talks poor -- "David's so goddamned cheap," his late friend Jack Nance once laughingly told me -- but has a three-house compound in the Hollywood Hills. Although his twisted style subverts traditional American values, his political attitudes are profoundly conservative: "She's a wonderful woman," he once snapped when I made fun of Nancy Reagan. Where many are swallowed by their contradictions, Lynch gobbles them down like amphetamines. They're his goad, his fuel, his shivering thrill.
When we first met in the mid-1980s, his big, soft face was immaculately shaven, his hair neatly combed, his crisp white shirt carefully buttoned all the way to the top. He exuded a corn-fed adolescent enthusiasm -- did anyone else, even then, still say "Jeepers"? -- and I understood why he was often compared to Jimmy Stewart. Now, at 55, he still uses the same cracker-barrel lingo, but time has left its handwriting upon him. His eyes are bloodshot, the white shirt looks a tad worn, and bits of gray stubble elude his razor. He still reminds me of Jimmy Stewart, not the Mr. Smith who goes to Washington but the grizzled obsessive from Vertigo. His beaming smile has lost its innocence.
Yet sitting in his studio high above the family bunker (all three houses are made of concrete), he's in fine spirits. After years in the artistic wilderness, David Lynch is back with a vengeance. He's about to launch a pay Web site, DavidLynch.com, and his new movie, Mulholland Drive, has proven an unexpected triumph. A rejected TV pilot that Lynch re-shot, re-cut and re-conceived, Mulholland Drive isn't merely his best work in a decade, it may be the best movie set in Hollywood since Sunset Boulevard.
In an essay written around the time of Lost Highway, David Foster Wallace neatly explained why Lynch's work is so unsettling: Unlike a normal film, a Lynch film gets under your skin because you don't know what it wants from you. It enters you like a dream.
This is certainly true of Mulholland Drive, a corrosively beautiful fairy tale that's as mysterious as the inky shadows that lie just beyond the throw of our headlights. It centers on the apache dance of two wildly different women, one dark and one fair. There's the hard-faced brunette sexpot known as Rita (Laura Elena Harring), who is suffering from amnesia, and there's innocent, blond Betty Elms, played by Naomi Watts, whose breathtaking performance takes her from wide-eyed wonder to a lacerating awareness of human emptiness. Wildly ambitious and wantonly intuitive, the movie is at once a touching love story, a portrait of L.A. illusions, a pomo slice of film noir, a clubfooted satire of the movie business and a radical vision of the human psyche -- not to mention another Lynchian riff on The Wizard of Oz, complete with tiny people. Call it a tale about nudes caught in the Dream Factory.
Like nearly all of Lynch's work, the movie began not with a plot line but with a mood, an image, a title, a place -- in this case, Mulholland Drive.
"I picture Mulholland Drive at night," Lynch says, lighting up an American Spirit cigarette. "Anybody who's driven on that road knows that there's not a lot of traffic, and it's filled with coyotes and owls and who knows what. You hear stories about things that happen on Mulholland Drive. It's a road of mystery and danger. And it's riding on top of the world, looking down on the Valley and Los Angeles. You get these incredible vistas, so it's pretty dreamy as well as mysterious."
THE MOST INSTINCTIVE OF ARTISTS, LYNCH HAS never liked discussing his work and grows instantly leery when you bring up questions of meaning. When I ask how he sees the difference between blondes and brunettes, a classic dichotomy that he returns to fetishistically, his answer's so deliberately vague that both of us smile -- we know I'll never be able to use it. Like a good Middle American (he was born in Montana), he views all manner of analysis with mortal suspicion. He once went to a psychiatrist, and after the first session asked if therapy might damage his creativity. The shrink said yes, and Lynch never went back.
The first time I interviewed him, in 1986, I spent hours peppering him with questions, all of which he deflected with cheery aplomb. I felt like a high school kid parked with a perky virgin who politely removed my hand each time I put it on her thigh. Today, we're both too old for that song and dance, and we race through our paces like blasé divorcees.
"You feel warier than you used to be?"
He leans back in his Aeron chair. I look around his atelier, which is studded with Lynchiana. A coffee cup, a big kit of Brookestone tools, a gorgeous, unfinished painting that contains the words Bob's Anti-Gravity Factory. In a touch so talismanic that it feels art-directed, his small portable stereo is adorned with the husk of a dead fly.
He lights up another cigarette, and I ask about his smoking. He says that 22 years after quitting cold turkey, he started up again in 1992.
"What happened in 1992?"
He laughs mirthlessly. "Don't get funny with me, Powers."
I originally wondered if his fabled obsessiveness was a sly shtick, a way of giving reporters something droll to write about while throwing them off the scent. No doubt this is partly true. But in 1989, I spent a week interviewing Lynch for a French documentary and saw firsthand how thoroughly his obsessions shaped his life. Back then he wouldn't allow any food in the house (he hated the smell) and ate exactly the same thing every day (as I recall, a tuna sandwich for lunch). Since then, the menu has changed but not the obsession:
"I'll have the same thing every day for six months maybe, or even longer," he says. "And then one day I just can't face it anymore.
"Now, I have cappuccino in the morning, many coffees during the day, and salad that's put in a Cuisinart so each bite tastes the same. No meat. This has got nuts and eggs and some lettuce and different kinds of greens. So it's a little bowl of Cuisinart salad with Parmesan cheese on top. And then at night I have a block of Parmesan cheese, maybe a 2-inch cube, and red wine. Mary [Sweeney, with whom he lives] cuts it up for me into little chunks and gives it to me in a napkin."
When I ask why he wants to stick to this redundant diet, he tells me that it's "reassuring . . . there are no surprises there." Lynch's inner life is obviously so fertile and turbulent -- a steaming Amazon of run-amok impulses -- that his culinary routine provides a kind of sanctuary. Like the concrete walls that house him, his dietary rituals help him fend off the outer world so he can devote all his time to work.
For Lynch loves working more than anything in the world. Tireless as a silkworm, he just can't stop creating: He paints, makes movies, produces TV shows, takes photographs and plays guitar for a heavy-metal band called Blue Bob. Creativity is the one topic he never tires of talking about. He'll tell you how some ideas come from deep inside you, and how other ideas come from places so much deeper inside that they seem to be coming from outside you. And he'll tell you how still others trickle into your mind like water and pool there until you finally notice them and fall in love with their possibilities. Just don't ask him what they mean.
"Once you fall in love with the ideas," he exults, "that is so thrilling. There's not much more to think about except trying to go as deep into that world as you can and being true to those ideas. You kind of get lost. And getting lost is beautiful."
OF COURSE, SOME WAYS OF GETTING LOST ARE not so lovely, and for most of the last decade, Lynch seemed to have dropped off the cultural map.
It hardly seemed possible. From the moment he made the definitive midnight movie, Eraserhead, in 1976, he was a guy on the rise. True, Dune was a megabudget flop, but Lynch had already landed a Best Director Oscar nomination for The Elephant Man, and his next picture, Blue Velvet, quickly became one of the cinematic touchstones of the last quarter-century. By the summer of 1990, his trademark blend of irony, grotesquery and visceral emotionalism had made him the heppest cat around. Wild at Heart had just won the Palme d'Or at Cannes, Twin Peaks was an international craze, and Lynch himself gazed out from the cover of Time, which dubbed him the "Czar of Bizarre." He had turned a common Irish surname into a resonant adjective -- the word Lynchian was every bit as evocative as Kafkaesque -- and his eccentric sensibility seeded the clouds of the '90s, influencing TV programs like Northern Exposure and cartoonists like Daniel Clowes, and injecting his artistic DNA into the work of Tarantino, Egoyan and the brothers Coen (what is Fargo if not a more anodyne Twin Peaks?).
But just when Lynch seemed to have it made, this oddball Icarus flew too close to mass culture's klieg lights. Despite a shattering climax, Twin Peaks guttered and died, and the public never warmed to Wild at Heart (which I still think is his worst film). By the time Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me was released in 1992 (and yes, that's the year he began smoking again), he had fallen sadly out of favor. Although his account of Laura Palmer's last week is one of that decade's bravest and most harrowing films, it died in a blizzard of nasty, uncomprehending reviews (The Washington Post termed it a "psychic autopsy, a weirdly fundamentalist cogitation on the intersection of Heaven, Hell and Washington state").
When I ask about this fall from grace, he shrugs and replies in the primitivist terms you might expect: "They warned me if you're on the cover of Time, you've got two years' bad luck coming. And a black cloud did come over me, and when the black cloud comes over, there's nothing you can do about it. Nothing. And you look out and you wonder, 'How come these things are happening and people are saying these things?' It's just the way it is. It's just part of the deal. And then you wonder, 'How long will the cloud be there?'"
Lynch didn't make another film for five years, and you heard industry types muttering that he was "over." But his own faith in himself was unshaken. "If you don't believe in the work and you get bad reviews, then it's really devastating. But if you believe in it, then the bad reviews, at most, are confusing -- you can still live. With Dune it was the first example, and with Fire Walk With Me it was the second."
Because his work never relies on formula, Lynch has a narrower margin for error than most filmmakers: If a scene or two goes kerflooey, he completely loses the audience. That's pretty much what happened with the patchy Lost Highway (1997), whose Möbius-strip structure was miles from Hollywood's three-act cliché -- Bill Pullman transforms into Balthazar Getty with no explanation. People just didn't get it. That may be one reason he played it so linear in The Straight Story, a lawn-mower-powered 1999 road movie that was as square as Grandma's favorite doily. Although the movie was guilty of romanticizing small-town life (no Wal-Mart in Lynch's Iowa), it also marked a heartfelt stab at a new emotional maturity. Lynch genuinely believed what he was saying about family and reconciliation. The movie had a tenderness largely missing since The Elephant Man.
That tenderness has carried over into Mulholland Drive, which finds Lynch up to his customary trick of dropping light and dark into the Cuisinart. Although this is the crookedest story he's ever told, Lynch never loses sight of his heroines' frailty amid all the hallucinations, mistaken identities, performances within performances, dreams within dreams within dreams. The film's vision is bleak, for Lynch no longer seems to believe in any kind of solid, stable psyche. He portrays the self as a series of trap doors through which we tumble, or perhaps as an onion -- peel off its layers and there's nothing left but silence. In a pivotal scene, Rita and Betty go to a downtown theater and watch a Latina singer belt out a song with wrenching passion. It's a dazzling star turn -- until we discover that she's merely lip-synching. Mulholland Drive suggests that each of our lives is a performance in which we're never quite sure whose voice we're really hearing, or who's writing the lines.
It's not that Lynch has no idea of how he'd like the world to be. For all his dark, perverse imaginings, his social values are rooted in the sunlit credo of the American West: Don't tread on me. Nothing matters to him more than his freedom to do whatever he thinks up. I first saw this side of him one afternoon in 1989 when he began railing about the city government: It wouldn't let him put razor wire around his property to keep itinerants from cutting across his property. He shook his head:
"You know, John, this country's in pretty bad shape when human scum can walk across your lawn, and they put you in jail if you shoot 'em."
While Lynch doesn't seem like the sort of man who's packing heat, he was drawn to Ronald Reagan because of his "cowboy image" and laments that L.A.'s wonderland of individual freedom is being hedged in by rules and regulations. He takes building-code restrictions personally. "People," he says, "should be able to build what they want to build, when they want to build it, how they want to build it."
Although he claims to know nothing of politics, in last year's election he backed the Natural Law Party, whose philosophy is that an ideal government mirrors the natural order. While this may sound slightly wacko, the party's platform is perfectly sensible -- libertarianism with a human face. As part of the campaign, Lynch produced a campaign video for the party's presidential candidate, John Hagelin, an acclaimed quantum physicist. This tape is an extremely strange document (you can see it at http://archive.hagelin.org/soundbytes/davidlynch.htm), for Lynch has no great knack for doing normal. He interviews the candidate in front of creepy golden curtains and punctuates the questions with ominous pulsing music. The superbrainy Hagelin winds up seeming like an off-kilter, B-movie version of a real politician -- the presidential hopeful from Twin Peaks.
Lynch's picture of the world was formed in the 1950s, and he clearly adores the mythologized version, that fabulous decade of jukeboxes and sneaky-perverse movies like Rear Window.
"It was a feeling in the air that anything was possible. People were enthusiastically inventing things that thrilled them. And there was a happiness in the air. There was plenty going on beneath the surface, but it wasn't as dark a time because there was that other thing going along with it. The '50s was a time when people seemed to be going crazy with design. And the cars were just incredible. I mean, you look at them, and it's like you start to fall in love. That changed, you know, in the '60s and '70s. The cars were pitiful. I mean pitiful. It made you ashamed. You'd wanna hang your head and go in a corner. It was sickening."
We're talking a couple of days before September 11, but Lynch is already gloomy about the state of the world:
"You just get the feeling that you're sort of powerless in the big picture. And it's not like 'I better get mine,' but I'm gonna burrow in and concentrate and enjoy doing that. Not try to put my head in the sand, but for my own protection let as little of that outside negativity affect me."
He lights another American Spirit.
Far more than when we first met, Lynch appears to be isolating himself from the outside world. And there's more to this than just surrounding himself with concrete walls. Where he once waxed lyrical about tooling around L.A., he now says he doesn't drive very much anymore. People have gotten too crazy and the cars too hideous. "If the cars were more beautiful," he says about driving, "somehow I think people would take care and enjoy it more."
At the moment, he seems settled in a domesticity I wouldn't have believed possible in the early '90s. Back then he was known for squiring around actresses, from ex-flame Isabella Rossellini to Twin Peaks hotty Sherilyn Fenn. (In life, anyway, he prefers his women dark rather than fair.) He's currently into his 10th year with companion Mary Sweeney, a multitalented brunette who produced his last three films, edited all his work since Fire Walk With Me ä and co-wrote The Straight Story. She's also the mother of 9-year-old Riley.
I ask Lynch: "Do you like being a father?"
His smile falters slightly. "What does that have to do with anything?"
WHEN THE AIRPLANES FLATTENED the World Trade Center, the composer Karl-Heinz Stockhausen caused a scandal by calling it a great work of art. Lynch is not so cut off from humanity as to say anything like that, but far more than anyone I've met, he does view life through the prism of aesthetics. He's so preternaturally attuned to design that it's sometimes hard to believe he's not kidding.
I've been told that Lynch likes to hang around the vintage modern furniture shop Skank World, and one morning, I ask if he cares about furniture. He instantly sits up.
"Caring," he says, giving it a little spin. "Every word has, you know, its spread of power. You could care a little bit or you could care a lot. But if you put this word caring at the maximum-level intensity, it wouldn't begin to be enough to say how much I love furniture.
"And I have been sick lately. I'm not seeing any furniture that thrills my soul. I look around, I look at stuff, and a lot of times it's close but no cigar. A piece of furniture can completely destroy a whole room." He pauses to sip his coffee. "You know, unless the environment is a certain way, you really do yourself a disservice."
Lynch himself has designed furniture, and though he finds none of it "thrilling" -- the highest term of praise in his lexicon -- I ask if we can look at what he's come up with. We step carefully down the narrow pathway and wind up in house number three, which is less a home than a gigantic grown-up playhouse.
We pass through a room filled with gorgeous, sinister paintings devoted to the further misadventures of Bob, then move down a dark hallway to a door. It opens to reveal a full-fledged motion-picture mixing studio, with a big silver screen, two 35mm projectors, huge Marshall amps and technicians sipping coffee. They're working on the sound for the forthcoming The Elephant Man DVD, and Lynch promises me that the remix is going to be "pretty tasty." From there, he leads me to a room filled with the equipment that runs the studio, and an Epson 9500 photo printer that uses rolls of paper up to 44 inches wide. Lynch fondly calls it the "Bad Boy."
All this must have cost you a fortune, I say, and he nods.
"It was not pretty."
Eventually we find our way to his office, where I'm shown a group of tables that he designed -- an asymmetrical espresso table, a club table with a special slot for cigarettes, and a "floating beam" table, whose thick underlying beam appears to hang in the air. They were built by a Swiss company called Casanostra, which subsequently went out of business. Lynch insists that his tables weren't the reason why, though it's hard to imagine anyone buying one with the intention of using it -- they're fabulous Magritte-style curios rather than practical home furnishings.
Even as he dutifully shows me a bed he designed (the headboard was made, he says, by "Raoul, the upholsterer to the stars"), he's eager to get me over to the computer, a relatively new obsession. Lynch's tastes may run to retro in cars and lamps, but he's not one of those Luddites who find Flash animation as incomprehensible as Sanskrit or hate digital video (he's thought of making a silly DV comedy titled The Dream of the Bovine). Lynch happily embraces what he calls the "beautiful world" of the Internet, which he sees as a new frontier of staggering freedom. "The whole world is made of little bits," he says, "and now we've been given little bits that we can manipulate. The sky is the limit."
Predictably, Lynch has no discernible interest in using computers the way most of us do. He rarely surfs the Net, doesn't play video games. Instead, he has spent much of the last two years designing DavidLynch.com, which was optimistically scheduled to launch October 12 (it didn't make it) and should be open for business any day now. The site will showcase all manner of new Lynchiana, from still photographs and music to DV serials.
Once his computer's booted up, he clicks his mouse. Up pops a set of surreal teeth that open and close. Very spooky.
Click! We're looking at a seedy apartment occupied by three characters, all of whom have human bodies topped with big-eared bunny heads.
Click! An extraordinary close-up of bees.
Click! A naked woman in a jar.
Click! A butcherd pig that's been reassembled and now stands on its back legs ("I'm going to make the pig walk").
Click! To my shock, there's a picture of Lynch bending over and pointing his finger at his backside (covered, thank heavens), which is aimed straight at the camera.
Lynch laughs. "I did this one for a guy who said I hadn't paid him some money."
We spend a long time perusing a still photo of the elevator lobby from Eraserhead. Using PhotoShop, Lynch has been able to make the elevator doors slide open to reveal what's inside -- light spills out onto the carpet in the foreground.
He stares at it intently. "There was a period when I could get lost in this world for weeks at a time."
My allotted time has run out, and I keep preparing to leave. But looking at all this material, Lynch is getting excited. He keeps offering to show me one more thing. He shows me two nudes. He shows me another Polish factory. He shows me the lovely prototype image for his Web site's chat room, which looks like some unholy hybrid of a steam engine and a film projector.
As the images keep coming (even more bees!), I find myself getting caught up in his boyish enthusiasm. His stuff really is cool! And I'm reminded why, though some folks think him dark or nasty, I've always found Lynch inspiring. A true romantic, he believes in the transcendent power of imagination, the possibility of creating wondrous new worlds.
Computers, I say, must be a real boon to obsessives like him.
He tells me that, for the upcoming DVD of Eraserhead, a man named Arash has spent four months digitally tweaking all the images.
"You know, like, when you're watching a film on TV, you see little white specks? That's negative dirt. On Eraserhead, the dirt was built in. There was no way to get rid of it. Every print had the same dirt. And you know how when you're on your computer and you've got your magnifying glass, you can go to the next magnification and see large? And on the next magnification you'll see billions of pieces of dirt and so on? Well, Arash has cleaned this thing."
"Frame by frame." He beams
triumphantly. "It will be the cleanest film in cinema history."