AGGRESSIVE, ABSURD AND ADDICTIVE | December 6th 2007
Does even David Lynch know what his own films mean? Eerie, cultish and entirely unique, the director's work has taken 30 years to come full circle. Scott Castle has been hooked from the start ...
Special to MORE INTELLIGENT LIFE
Along with many Americans, I discovered David Lynch on April 8th 1990, when "Twin Peaks" had its debut on ABC. Everything about the pilot ran against what I'd come to expect from television. (This is long before HBO led us to expect better things, mind you.) The languid Angelo Badalamenti score, the slow pans that never rushed to reveal what was just out of frame, and the characters who seemed too bizarre to fit on a small screen. The show didn't hurry; it unfolded. I didn't quite know how to process what I was seeing, but I was hooked. I wanted more.
Set in a fictional town in Washington state, "Twin Peaks" revolved around the murder of Laura Palmer, a popular teenage student. The opening credits began with a shot of Snoqualmie Falls, where I'd picnicked with my family. But the region's ubiquitous evergreen trees, which had provided the backdrop for my childhood, suddenly seemed to be guarding deeper secrets. My friend Wes, a fellow high-school junior, shared my newfound obsession. We marvelled every Friday at what we'd witnessed the night before, dissecting shows for clues and arguing their meanings. We drove up to North Bend (the inspiration for the fictional Twin Peaks) to have pie and damn fine coffee at the Mar-T (which inspired the "Double R") and we tried--unsuccessfully--to get our bewildered friends to share our fanaticism. (The same kind of manic proselytising I now get from friends who will not rest until I watch "Lost".)
Now that the newly released "Twin Peaks Definitive Gold Box Edition DVD" is topping my Christmas wish list (which includes the two-hour pilot that, until now, has never been available on DVD), I'm curious about how the two-season, 30-episode show has aged. But my Lynch obsession has never wavered. A framed copy of Laura Palmer's prom photo has been sitting atop my stereo for 17 years now--a constant reminder of the hold his work has on me.
My discovery of Lynch's oeuvre grew in fits and starts. A local alternative weekly newspaper published his comic strip "The Angriest Dog in the World", in which the titular canine strains against his tether while a house's unseen denizens make surreal non-sequiturs. Every drawing was the same, every week. Only the dialogue changed. It was comic deadpan to the point of rigor mortis. Again Lynch altered what I thought a medium could do, or what it seemingly was allowed to do. The strip ran for nine years.
With the zeal of a convert, I attended a screening of "Eraserhead", Lynch's surrealistic, cultish, aggressively absurd 1977 film, at Seattle's historic Neptune Theatre. I was baffled--not only by what was flickering onscreen, but by the exodus of theatre patrons after about 20 minutes. I figured they were leaving because they were expecting the more palatably eerie "Twin Peaks" or even "Blue Velvet". They couldn't handle the film's unblinking commitment to abstract strangeness. But 17 years later, at the Museum of Modern Art this past spring, a flawless 35mm print of the film yielded the same phenomenon. About 20 minutes in, patience eroded and the exodus began. Even among MoMA's familiar mix of grey-haired sophisticates, art-film obsessives, and devout cinephiles, Lynch cannot be enjoyed, or even tolerated, by everyone.
A college friend of mine hated Lynch. He accused him of being an indulgent filmmaker who had no idea what his own films meant, and who had no respect for his audience. I argued that Lynch knew exactly what he wanted, and admirably didn't let the pesky expectations of others sway him. Maybe we were both right. Lynch began his artistic career as a painter, a medium in which a singular vision is achieved without outside interference. Film-making is often too expensive and unwieldy to enable such resolve. But Lynch seems capable of creating something unique and untainted, regardless of the medium.
During the five years it took to complete "Eraserhead", Lynch discovered transcendental meditation. The lesson was profound enough to prompt him to start the David Lynch Foundation, which funds programmes to introduce school students and teachers to the benefits of meditation. "Ideas are like fish," Lynch writes in the introduction to his 2006 book, "Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity". "If you want to catch little fish you can stay in the shallow water. But if you want to catch the big fish, you've got to go deeper." He still practices daily meditation, 33 years later, and says that inspiration for his work comes to him this way, in little fragments. "The first fragment is like the Rosetta Stone. It's the piece of the puzzle that indicates the rest." This might explain the dream-like quality of his work.
While making "Dune" in 1984, a big-budget adaptation of Frank Herbert's science-fiction novel, Lynch felt as though he'd sold out. Constant battles with the studio eventually led him to remove his name from the film, which ended up being a commercial and critical flop. "I learned I would rather not make a film than make one where I don't have final cut," Lynch said years later. Dino De Laurentiis was the producer on "Dune", and both men seemed to have come away with a grudging respect for each other. On their next collaboration, De Laurentiis slashed Lynch's budget and fee, but gave him the final cut. Lynch embraced the freedom that can follow failure. The result was "Blue Velvet" in 1986, a haunting film considered a classic by everyone except Roger Ebert.
Lynch's biggest regret was succumbing to network pressure to reveal Laura Palmer's killer early in the second season of "Twin Peaks". Ratings swiftly plummeted, and the show was soon taken off the air. The network had forced him to kill the golden goose, and then blamed him when the series stopped producing gold. But Lynch loved the idea of an open-ended, mysterious storyline, and tried to achieve it again with another ABC series: "Mulholland Drive". When ABC pulled the plug he turned to transcendental meditation and found the answers he needed to turn it into a feature. Deals with independent producers and StudioCanal bankrolled additional footage. The resulting film--a bizarre, masterpiece of liminal circumstance--earned Lynch the Palme D'Or at Cannes, an avalanche of critical praise, and his third Oscar nomination for best director.
Five years later, his fellow nominees--Ron Howard, Ridley Scott, Peter Jackson, and Robert Altman--had all directed three more films, and Lynch was finally ready to release his next: "INLAND EMPIRE". Shot for an undisclosed budget on a prosumer model Sony PD-150, and with no shooting script, the film was inspired by a nine-episode internet series he had created about giant, talking rabbits. Laura Dern gives a bravura triple-performance as several of the film's protagonists, while the Mobius strip of a plot chips away the illusion of narrative until it implodes on itself. Lynch distributed the three-hour opus himself, and "INLAND EMPIRE" grossed over $850,000 by playing individual bookings at art-house cinemas nationwide.
Now that Lynch has total control of the filmmaking process, from script to distribution, we can only expect the unexpected. Having embraced the freedom of digital video, which enables cheap experimentation, Lynch has said that for him, "Film is dead." He has no plans to shoot on it again.
In three decades, Lynch has come full circle. He is back to creating difficult films that studios would have neither the cash nor the patience to produce. But in that time he has also cultivated legions of fans who, like me, will continue to support his singular work. So, despite the fact that I found "INLAND EMPIRE" easy to admire but harder to enjoy, I can't help but fall prey to Alice's stubborn curiosity and follow Lynch down the next rabbit hole. Not because I'm blindly devoted to what he's given us in the past, but because of the possibilities that I believe only his exploratory work can deliver.
(Scott Castle is a writer based in Brooklyn.)