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Lost and Spaced

by Stuart Husband, Arena, September 1997


David Lynch is standing in the middle of an exhibition of his paintings and photos in a Paris gallery. An earnest-looking young man approaches Lynch with some trepidation, and says: "I vanted to ask you, in your films, you seem obsessed with hets..."

"Hats!" exclaims the director, in his gee-whiz folksy staccato. "They're great! I wore this real cool one constantly for six years a ten gallon cowboy hat. I love Forties movies when everyone wore a hat. Now there are no more hats, and that's a real shame."

"No," says the young man, blushing furiously, "I didn't say hats, I said heads..."

"Heads!" Lynch doesn't miss a beat. "You know, I love them too! Yes, sir!"

Yes sir, David Lynch is back. But do we really want him? Five years after the critical and commercial disaster of the Twin Peaks movie, Fire Walk With Me, Lynch is promoting Lost Highway, which he describes as "a twenty-first century noir horror thriller". Dispensing with the whimsy that was creeping into his work around the time of Wild At Heart and Twin Peaks, the film is Lynch's most sustained and pitiless journey into the dark side of human nature to date, and it's met with a decidedly mixed reception. Some have hailed it as a triumphant return to form (one reviewer talked of "wanting to go and find the nearest church to get my soul back" after seeing it). Others have charged Lynch with degenerating into a parody of himself.

Co-written by Lynch and Barry Gifford (who also wrote Wild At Heart), it's ostensibly the story of Fred Madison (Bill Pullman, emphatically playing against nice-guy type), a jazz saxophonist who shares a dark, doom-filled house and a dark, doom-filled marriage with Renee (Patricia Arquette), a catatonically withdrawn redhead. Renee is messily killed and Fred, who may or may not have murdered her, ends up on Death Row where, at the height of a particularly nasty headache, he is transformed into Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty), a young, horny garage mechanic who falls for a rapacious moll named Alice (Arquette again, now a platinum blonde). Floating in and out of both men's stories are the sinister figures of gangster Mr Eddy (Robert Loggia) and an archetypal Lynch character known only as The Mystery Man (Robert Blake), a white-faced figure with shaved eyebrows who seems to be able to be in two places at once.

Like all Lynch's best work, you don't so much watch Lost Highway as experience it: the film's many disturbing images are compounded by its extraordinary sound, a mixture of drones and squeals concocted by Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails. What marks the movie out from Lynch's previous offerings is its switch of emphasis; while Blue Velvet and Twin Peaks looked at the effects of evil on the vulnerable psyche, Lost Highway attempts to place you inside the psyche where those effects are taking place. It's a delirious ride, but the film's determination to crash through the buffers of narrative logic will leave many viewers behind, puzzled.

To Lynch, the questions are the point. "The more unknowable the mystery," he exclaims, "the more beautiful it is." Watching him holding court in a Paris hotel, you can see how uncannily accurate Mel Brooks' oft-quoted description of Lynch "Jimmy Stewart from Mars" really is. He's definitely older aside from the grey hair, the lines round his eyes have deepened, and his delicate hands flutter in his lap as he speaks but he's dressed in his traditional uniform of black jacket, black buttoned-up shirt and chino pants, and his sunny demeanour and homespun homilies throw the skulls, severed ears and exploding heads of his work into even starker relief. "He's so straight, it's hard to realise he has such a sick and twisted mind," says Dennis Hopper of Lynch. "Dear David!"

When asked what's actually going on in Lost Highway, Lynch demurs. "The answers are there for people to discover on an intuitive level. In life, many abstractions hit us and they're like magnets that take us deeper into things. I don't want to say it's about this or that, because everyone has their own interpretation."

Patricia Arquette certainly does: "It's about a relationship where the man's a misogynist. He kills the woman, but can't admit it, so he reimagines himself as this young, virile guy. She comes back and really wants him, but even in his fantasy he gets fucked up. He's too afraid of her."

Lost Highway has revived charges of misogyny against Lynch, first aired after Isabella Rossellini's loving embrace of S&M in Blue Velvet; in the new movie, Arquette is forced to strip for Mr Eddy at gunpoint. She starts off terrified, but then appears to get into it. "David's not a misogynist," says Arquette emphatically. "My experience with him was very gentle; he was always delightful to me. I think, though, he is obsessed and confused by women."

Lynch was born 51 years ago in the small town of Missoula, Montana. As a child, he says, he was fascinated by two things insects and guns. "I studied ants and drew ammunition and pistols." in the ninth grade, he became "possessed" by art and ended up getting a scholarship to the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where he started painting "real dark things". The transition from painting to film came when Lynch was working on a painting at the Academy. "I looked at the figure in the picture, and I felt a little wind, and I saw a little movement. From then on I knew that I wanted to make things that moved as well as things that were still."

It took five years to bring that dream to fruition, the result being Eraserhead, billed on its release in I976 as "a dream of dark and troubling things". To finance the film, Lynch undertook all sorts of jobs, including carpentry and plumbing, which he loved. "There's something deeply satisfying," he says, "about directing the flow of water."

If Eraserhead, with its clanging industrial soundtrack and deeply upsetting mutant baby, established his reputation, The Elephant Man, with its eight Oscar nominations, cemented it; but then Dune, in 1984, a lavish, incomprehensible mess (75 sets, 4,000 costumes, Sting in a metal jockstrap), all but buried it.

But Lynch "got up" in spectacular style with Blue Velvet in 1986, the idea for which, he says, came to him in a dream. "I just slipped into another place and it all played out. Ideas bob up and you fall in love with them. Something happens and they're just triggered off, like little bombs."

By 1990, Lynch's star was at its zenith. He and Rossellini became the style pages' favourite Golden Couple (their relationship later foundered when, according to legend, he ordered her out when she cooked an egg, thus breaking his rule of never allowing cooking in the house); Wild At Heart, his delirious road movie, won the Palme d'Or at Cannes; and Twin Peaks achieved the remarkable feat of beaming his dark vision into the homes of Middle America (not to mention Middle England). Initially a sensation, the show started to unravel by the middle of the second season. "I liked the idea of a continuing story that sucks you into a deeper world," Lynch says now, "but Laura Palmer's killer was never meant to be discovered. The mystery was meant to float permanently above the action. Once it got solved, something beautiful was lost."

In an effort to rectify things, Lynch made a "prequel" to the series, but the release of Fire Walk With Me in 1992 unleashed a critical firestorm ("It's not the worst movie ever made; it just seems to be" Vincent Canby in The New York Times).

The film was unwieldy, occasionally inept and unremittingly grim, but Lynch, clearly still exasperated and bemused by the furious whirlwind it reaped, continues to defend it. "I don't think I let myself down with it," he says. "It just did not go well in the world. And the fact that it failed was good in a way. A failure can free a person. There's no more place to go down and you get more space to search for ideas. It really can be pretty beautiful."

It's ironic that while Lynch's reputation was in freefall, those film-makers who owe a certain debt to his singular vision and stylistic brio (Quentin Tarantino, Jim Jarmusch, Jane Campion, Gus Van Sant and the Coen brothers, to name just a few) have seen their stock soar. "He's been inspirational to those people. He's the number one maverick," says Patricia Arquette. "He's too much of a purist ever to attempt to go mainstream again," says Bill Pullman. "For better or worse."

A brief resume of some of the scripts Lynch failed to get made during his five-year hiatus illustrates Pullman's comment: one was Ronnie Rocket, a long-cherished project ("it's about this 3ft guy with red hair and it's about electricity"); another was The Dream Of The Bovine ("about these guys who used to be cows trying to assimilate their lives"). Before Lost Highway was eventually given the green light, Lynch was forced to work out of his Hollywood home, painting in his workshop, taking photos of industrial machinery ("I love to look at factories and turbines and things," he shrugs), and hanging out with his "sweetheart" Mary Sweeney, long-time editor of his movies, and their five-year-old son Riley. "They have Friday night soirees, which mainly consist of coffee and cigarettes," says Bill Pullman. "David tells stories he's a very good storyteller and he tries to dump a ton of sugar in your coffee, saying, 'Take it! Sugar is your friend!' It's like a vision of domestic bliss..." he adds, "...until you open the fridge door and see all these dried bugs and animals he's about to embalm in his paintings. It's not an act with David; he really is the genuine article."

For that reason alone, Lynch remains a talent to cherish. Lost Highway, for all its flaws, leaves scorch marks in theatres where it plays, and is an encouraging sign that Lynch is becoming more uncompromising as he gets older. "I have to make what I see," he says, "whether it's a painting, a table, or a movie, or it's like a death and what would be the point of that?"

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