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Weird at Heart

The Guardian Friday 25 July 1997, Written by Gaby Wood

In the five years since Twin Peaks, the movie, something strange has happened to David Lynch. he has begun to appear normal. We should of known better. his new film is straight from the twilight zone of his early mind-benders. Gaby Wood gets surreal with the Sultan of Spook.

Weird at Heart.

David Lynch's hair has grown. I arrive at the Hotel Lancaster in Paris expecting to meet the wholesome, conservatively combed man of Lynch lore. His clean look has baffled those who have tried to match him with the troubled world of his films - the severed ear, the mutant baby, the bad guys, bad dreams, bad sex.

But today he is more monumental than he usually appears on film or in photographs. Stiff, steely hair towers like magic grass from a rectangular head that rests, as if separate, on a background of black shirt and jacket. Just above the middle of his forehead, a piece of hair has caved in, like a lazy question mark. The hair is an immediate reminder of the wild, tall style of Eraserhead, but it could easily belong to the world of any of his films: rather how someone might look if they'd been electrocuted while listening to Roy Orbison.

We meet two weeks after the death of Jack Nance, the hero of Eraserhead and Lynch's great collaborator. I wonder if Lynch has styled his hair in tribute. To the eye trained on Lynch's world, hair is never innocent. In his l990 TV series, Twin Peaks, Leland Palmer's dark hair turns white after the murder of his daughter. Many episodes later, we find out he is the killer. Lynch's films set you looking for these kinds of clues, clues linked by magic rather than logic, and they start to make you see the world as it is in close-up - skewed, ominous and absurd. Nance died after a brawl in a doughnut shop. You can't help thinking the scene has Lynch's touch.

Lynch has described Lost Highway, his new film and his first for five years, as "a 21st-century noir horror film", though in the introduction to the screenplay (Faber, £7.99) he says: "That's just sort of baloney ...basically it's a mystery" It certainly is a mystery. I have no idea what really happens. When I saw it I couldn't tell if it was even any good, but later, in the discomfort of my own home sounds seemed magnified, getting to bed was full of spooky hurdles, sleep wasn't easy. I ask Lynch if this is the kind of baffled terror he expects. "What's important is that people have the experience. If that's the way you felt it. I think that's absolutely true." Has he himself been frightened of the material he deals with? "I've been frightened a lot. And frightened by some ideas. But when you make a film you're inside it, you're seeing it from many different angles. Everybody has a line they won't cross over. My line is at a certain place, and it may be further away than some people seeing the film." Can he think of an occasion when he felt his own "line" had been crossed? Has he rejected anything because it was too much, even for him? "I've rejected many things. In Wild At Heart there was one scene that went further than what it is in the film. If I had felt so strongly that Ihadn't gone too far, I would have left it." He won't, needless to say, tell me which scene it was, but it hardly matters, since one can imagine any number of them going over the edge.

The bed in the first third of Lost Highway has black satin sheets. The couple who sleep in it are LA types: a troubled jazz musician, all jumbledthoughts and no small-talk (Bill Pullman), and a statuesque glamour girl, too perfect to be a million miles from silicon (Patricia Arquette). They speak slowly, dead flat, between long pauses. Everything changes, though, when a shot of the now-familiar bedroom shows the sheets have been changed to pink. A moment ago we were in some abstract universe. Now we see these people have everyday lives, they change their sheets! I tell Lynch I find this more unsettling even than his earlier grotesques, such as the Eraserhead baby or the Elephant Man.

Are these odd details the things that have the strongest effect? "It could be very small things that are horrifying. Just seeing one detail and the knowledge that came from that detail could be as frightening as death. It's what your mind does with that information that could be frightening." We're just getting on to Blue Velvet's severed ear when the phone rings. It's Lynch's editor, producer and third wife, Mary Sweeney. "Hi, Mary. Yes, you are. Oookay, Mary. Okay, hunnybunny. Bye."He's back. We smile. Hunny bunny? In spite of the haircut, the wholesome Lynch is sneaking in. It is hard to tell if Lynch's apparent ordinary guy-ness is an act or not. His films show he is a master at seeing something dark and looming in the "normal", and the details of his life make him sound like an expert in the prosaic.

He was born in l946 in Missoula, Montana, a state thought to be so death-defyingly dull that Woody Allen vetoed any mention of it in his movies. Lynch's father was a research scientist for the Department of Agriculture, his mother, Sunny, a housewife. They moved from small town to small town, wherever tree diseases and insects led them.

Lynch's sister, Margaret, developed a fear of green peas because they were hard on the outside and soft on the inside. All in all, though, theirs was an idyllic childhood: Lynch and his high school girlfriend were voted "cutest couple" and in 1961 he was a Scout at Kennedy's inauguration. If someone had been looking for clues to his later inclinations, they might have found them in his choice of reading material: nothing much, except for Kafka.

After high school Lynch studied painting at various colleges before settling at Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, where he made his first short films (The Alphabet, The Grandmother, Six Men Getting Sick), and met his first wife, Peggy Reavey.

He and Reavey had a daughter, Jennifer, who directed the ill-fated Boxing Helena in 1992 (produced by her father). For anyone who has been haunted by the child-rearing anxieties made so grotesque in Eraserhead, it may come as no surprise to find that Lynch could have spawned a mind sicker than his own. When asked whether she had been influenced by her father when making her film about a man who chops off the limbs of his beautiful idol and keeps her in a box, Jennifer replied that Lynch had actually been "quite offended by the subject matter".

Lynch married twice after his separation from Reavey, once to Mary Fisk, the sister of one of his oldest friends (they had one son, Austin) and the second time to his current wife Mary Sweeney (alias hunnybunny), with whom he has a five-year-old son called Riley.

Lynch's most publicised relationship, however, was with Isabella Rossellini, daughter of Ingrid Bergman and Roberto Rossellini, ex-wife of Martin Scorsese (a director Lynch has long admired). They were together for about four years, from the time he cast her as Dorothy Vallens, the pulp heroine of Blue Velvet (1986), until soon after Wild At Heart won the Palme D'Or at Cannes.

There were rumours she left him because of his quirky eating habits he used not to allow any cooked food in the house because the smell might contaminate his work. But in her new book, Some Of Me, Rossellini discloses that he left her and she admits to having been "totally broken-hearted". All this is eclipsed by the good boy you can hear in Lynch's voice. He speaks slowly and clearly, like a quiet version of the deaf and loud FBI bureau chief Gordon Cole whom he played in Twin Peaks. His humour is reassuringly dead pan, his smile unnervingly warm. Lynch has said that the smiles he remembers from his youth were genuine, but "strange". Everything in Lynch's films is double edged, not so much like the oft-quoted line from Wild At Heart ("This world is wild at heart and weird on top") as like his sister's green peas.

"I don't think the things you sense are strange," he says. "I just think early on you realize that it's not the way it seemed last week." Lynch's universe isn't really about what's underneath, but what's wrapped up inside, what's just next to it, or just before it. He is less concerned with what's hidden than with what you just can't see from here.

I ask him how his childhood homes look from where he is now: "I remember them on the surface as very idyllic. But there's always a sense of other things. The fifties were a beautiful time, in many senses: the birth of rock'n'roll, the cars, a certain optimism and freedom. It seemed like time was moving slower. There was a hopeful quality to things." This is Lynchville all over. The music, the cars, the slo-mo. Even the hopeful quality is in the things, rather than the people inanimate objects have a capacity for hope or doom. But perhaps this picture has more to do with childhood, or nostalgia, than the fifties?

"To a degree. I'm not sure that children today have that same space and feel ... And what is real for me now is probably mixed in with the passing of time. It's like jazz, and it doesn't really matter, it's all, you know, pretty nice."

Lynch seems to have an improvisatory way of working. The way he gets ideas is by "catching them" and "falling in love with them". For six years, he went to a Bob's Big Boy at 2.30pm every day and had the same thing: a chocolate shake and six or seven cups of very sugary coffee. He would get a frenzy of ideas on a sugar rush and would scribble them on napkins.

Now he doesn't eat sugar any more because, he tells me, he's on a diet. He is renowned for his fussy eating habits. Apart from the no cooked-food-in-the-house phobia, though, the only time he's been to see a psychoanalyst wasn't to exorcise the sort of nightmarish disturbances you might expect, but to see if he could break "cycles of things like lunches" (No such thing as a trauma-free lunch.)

He may have cut out the sugar, but he still works in the same passive way. Before starting work on Lost Highway two years ago, Lynch was painting, waiting to "catch" an idea. In 1991, he published a book called Images (Hyperion), which is full of faux-nerdy artwork such as his "Bee Boards" (each pinned-down bee has a name Don, B Chuck, Hank, Garth, Sid).

As with his films, there is a diffused irony to all of this. It's not faked, but it's not played straight either. "There's not a lot I don't believe in," Lynch tells me, but he doesn't think there's such a thing as normality. "And if there were, it would always be changing. Maybe you'd know it if you saw it...But I don't think you'd find it."

Somehow, we wind up discussing the cliché of the nice, "normal" guy who turns out to be a murderer: "Have you," I ask, "known murderers?" I could not have anticipated the length of the silence, Lynch is thinking hard. "What do you mean by a murderer? Do you mean somebody who's killed somebody? There's lots of people who've been in the war:" I discount those people."Just an out and out murderer?... mmm, not to my knowledge. Probably have - if I have, I'm not coming up with the person."

Lynch makes intelligent, hesitating conversation on these apparently out-of-the-way subjects. He's also a good sport. When he admits to being superstitious, he grins and tries to spook me: "Really strange superstitions."

I don't feel I can leave without broaching the subject of what he has called the "difficult sex" in his work. Lost Highway contains a deathly cocktail of videos, pornography, blood and surveillance. "I'm just as attracted to, you know, everything." He shuffles. "Stories come out of ideas, and always a story ends up being one thing. It doesn't mean you're not interested in many other things."

Does he actually not feel like the maker of big films, then? "No, almost not. It's like (the physicist) Nikola Tesla. One day he has like a vision of an alternating current generator. Every screw, every wind of wire was presented to him, and all he had to do was go into the shop and build it. Along with the vision came the understanding. Ideas are like that."I am almost sure this is a line of Agent Cooper's in Twin Peaks. In any case, I venture, even though people want to know most who the real David Lynch is, perhaps it is irrelevant.

"Yes. It's irrelevant." He's annoyed. But then a slow smile breaks across his face. "It's beautifully irrelevant."

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