At once a pop culture icon, cult figure, and film industry outsider, master filmmaker David Lynch and his work defy easy definition. Dredged from his subconscious mind, Lynch’s work is primed to act on our own subconscious, combining heightened, contradictory emotions into something familiar but inscrutable. No less than his art, Lynch’s life also evades simple categorization, encompassing pursuits as a musician, painter, photographer, carpenter, entrepreneur, and vocal proponent of Transcendental Meditation.
David Lynch: The Man from Another Place, Dennis Lim’s remarkably smart and concise book, proposes several lenses through which to view Lynch and his work: through the age-old mysteries of the uncanny and the sublime, through the creative energies of surrealism and postmodernism, through ideas of America and theories of good and evil. Lynch himself often warns against overinterpretation. And accordingly, this is not a book that seeks to decode his art or annotate his life—to dispel the strangeness of the Lynchian—so much as one that offers complementary ways of seeing and understanding one of the most distinctive bodies of work in modern cinema. Its spirit is true to its subject, in remaining suggestive rather than definitive, in allowing what Lynch likes to call “room to dream,” and in honoring the allure of the unknown and the unknowable.
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Weird on Top
There are four turning points in the creative life of David Lynch, four decisive moments that turned a common Irish last name into an adjective for our time.
1961: In Alexandria, Virginia, a girlfriend introduces fifteen-year-old David Lynch to a boy named Toby Keeler, whose father, Bushnell, is an artist. The senior Keeler paints landscapes, still lifes, nautical scenes: mantelpiece art, good enough to sell. Lynch, visiting his studio, is shocked to learn it’s possible to make a living that way. Bushnell Keeler gives the boy a book called The Art Spirit by the painter Robert Henri. A leader of the realist movement known as the Ashcan school, which favored gritty urban scenes and rallied around the credo “art for life’s sake,” Henri was also an inspirational teacher (of Edward Hopper and George Bellows, among others). The book is a collection of his notes and talks to students, combining technical instruction with musings on art as the source of “our greatest happiness,” peppered with motivational refrains (“Do some great work, Son!”). For the teenage Lynch, it changes everything, becomes a symbol of possibility. He decides to dedicate himself to the noble and romantic pursuit of art making, or, as he likes to call it, the “art life.”
1967: Lynch is now a painting student at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, where, as it happens, Robert Henri studied in the 1880s. Lynch has landed in Philadelphia after a brief stint at the School of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston and an abortive trip to Europe to study with the expressionist painter Oskar Kokoschka. For a small-town boy, the violence and squalor of Philly—especially in Lynch’s run-down postindustrial neighborhood—is nightmarish but it’s also where he starts to find his footing as an artist, where he has his “first original thought.” His paintings become literally and figuratively darker. One afternoon, while he’s working on a nearly all-black painting of a garden at night, he senses a wind emanating from within the canvas, seeming to stir the leaves under his brush. He wonders: What if paintings could move? What if they had sound? For the school’s annual contest a few months later, Lynch submits a mixed-media piece: a sculpted screen onto which he projects a stop-motion animated loop that depicts, over and over, a row of figures in agony, their stomachs and esophageal tracts filling up with red liquid that is expelled in a collective retch, accompanied by the sound of a blaring siren. He calls this, his first film, Six Men Getting Sick. It shares the first prize.
1973: As much as Lynch loves his new home of Los Angeles—where he relocated with his artist wife, Peggy, and their baby daughter, Jennifer, to enroll at the brand-new American Film Institute Conservatory in 1969—this is a low moment for him. He’s mired in the seemingly interminable production of his first feature, Eraserhead; the stop-start no-budget shoot will drag on for three more years. The responsibilities of being a family man in his mid-twenties are also taking a toll. Anxious and depressed, he loses his temper frequently. His sister, Martha, recommends Transcendental Meditation, which she started practicing a few months earlier. TM is a technique pioneered by the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, known as a spiritual guru to the stars, including the Beatles. Skeptical but curious, Lynch visits the TM center in Los Angeles, where an instructor—she resembles Doris Day, he will later recall — assigns him a mantra, a “sound-vibration-thought” that he is to focus on for twenty minutes with his eyes closed. The experience is so overwhelming—“pure bliss”—that he doesn’t notice time elapsing. A creature of habit, Lynch claims to have never missed a session since: twenty minutes, twice a day. He credits TM with increasing his “flow of creativity” and always has a notepad and pen by his side when he meditates.
The fourth moment is harder to locate. Perhaps it is after his most notorious flop, Dune, which prompts him to declare that he would rather not make a film than make one that would not allow him final cut. Perhaps it is after the cancellation of his most surprising success, the TV series Twin Peaks, which causes him to write, in capital letters, on a wooden board, I WILL NEVER WORK IN TELEVISION AGAIN. (He will break the promise, more than once.) Perhaps it comes earlier, in the transition from painting, a solo activity, to cinema, a collaborative endeavor, but one that he approaches in the identical spirit of absolute control. Or even before that, during a nomadic childhood that he associates most indelibly with Montana, with its Wild West history and individualist mythology. Whenever it may be, Lynch acquires the will or temperament it takes to be an artist who is never less than fully himself, even within an industrial medium and against the flattening forces of the mainstream.
More than five years after the start of shooting, Eraserhead premiered at the Filmex festival in Los Angeles in March 1977. It was reviewed in Variety under the headline “Dismal American Film Institute Exercise in Gore; Commercial Prospects Nil.” As a midnight movie, it ran for more than three years in New York City and Los Angeles, grossing $7 million in the United States alone, seventy times its shoestring budget. His follow-up, The Elephant Man, produced by Mel Brooks, ushered Lynch into the mainstream and earned him an Academy Award nomination. His next film, Dune, was one of the most notorious commercial and critical disasters of all time. The one after that, Blue Velvet, became one of the decade’s touchstone works of art. Time magazine put him on the cover in 1990, the “Czar of Bizarre” behind Twin Peaks; the show was canceled a few months later.
Lynch won the Palme d’Or, the prestigious top prize at Cannes, in 1990 for Wild at Heart; at the festival two years later, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me was booed and he was heckled at his press conference. Next came Lost Highway, widely considered his most perplexing movie to date. Short of critical raves to choose from, the distributor used a Siskel and Ebert slam—TWO THUMBS DOWN!—in the ads. The follow-up, The Straight Story, rated G and released by Disney, was universally deemed the most accessible film of his career.
When ABC, the network that axed Twin Peaks, nixed his proposed series, Mulholland Drive, he turned the unfinished pilot episode into a stand-alone movie, which earned him his best reviews since Blue Velvet and another Academy Award nomination. His response to this unlikely triumph was to insist on more artistic freedom, which he achieved by renouncing celluloid for good. (“Film is like a dinosaur in a tar pit.”) He shot Inland
Empire on a cheap, consumer-grade digital-video camera, in much the same fashion as Eraserhead: piecemeal over several years. He also self-distributed the film, and in one promotional gambit, he parked himself on a Hollywood street corner with aYOU’RE YOUR CONSIDERATION banner and a live cow.
Lynch has been a renaissance man all his working life: He drew a weekly cartoon strip called The Angriest Dog in the World for a full decade and has always found time for painting, photography, furniture design, music, and more. His studio art has reached its widest audience in his later years, with large exhibitions in Paris (The Air Is on Fire at the Fondation Cartier in 2007) and at his old student stomping grounds in Philadelphia (The Unified Field at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts in 2014). He has also released two albums, Crazy Clown Time (2011) and The Big Dream (2013); put in a very funny guest performance as a terse showbiz sage on Louis C. K.’s anti-sitcom Louie; sold his own line of organic coffee; partnered with the shoe designer Christian Louboutin on a touring exhibition featuring shadowy photos of female nudes in red-lacquered fetishistic stilettos; designed a members-only nightclub in Paris called Silencio, named after and modeled on the after-hours spot in Mulholland Drive; and directed a tour documentary for Duran Duran and a fifteen-minute promo for Christian Dior starring Marion Cotillard, just to name a few of his many ventures. A vocal proponent of Transcendental Meditation, he has also been stumping on behalf of the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace, promoting meditation in schools, meeting world leaders, and conducting lectures with an unlikely troupe of fellow meditators, including the actor Russell Brand, the physicist John Hagelin, and the 1960s folkie Donovan.