By Jan Stuart, Staff Writer, Newsday, March 9,1997
with many thanks to Kian for providing the article
The ultimate cult director (andBill Clinton look-alike) talks about two-lane highways, wood, mystery, fire and other things he loves
WHENEVER someone lights a match in a David Lynch movie, the flame
whooshes close to your face like a blowtorch. Stuff burns in his
picture - cigarettes, houses, people - and it burns big. This is
not pyromania, it's pyrophilia: Lynch never merely walks with fire, as
the title of one of his movies suggests. He makes love to it.
The fire that engulfs a desert shack in his latest film, "Lost
Highway," burns in reverse, sucking the flames back through the doors
and windows till the house stands as it was before, intact and unsinged.
The image could serve as a metaphor for the implosive bent of such
quintessential Lynch epics as the 1990 TV mini-series "Twin Peaks," "The
Elephant Man" (1980) and "Blue Velvet," his 1988 chef d'oeuvre.
"Lost Highway," which Newsday's Jack Mathews praised as "easily his
best work since `Blue Velvet,' " also reverses the artistic fortunes of
a director who had twice come a cropper with the costly, confounding
film version of "Dune"(1984) and "Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me" (1992),
the big-screen prequel to his TV smash.
When Lynch puts a cigarette to his mouth and reaches for a match,
it's a natural impulse to lean back, bracing for the flare-up. Even his
hair, a leaning tower of blond waves that seems to be a homage to
"Eraserhead" (his cultish 1976 debut flick), evokes a flame snapping in
the wind. As with everything else about him, however, the eventual act
of lighting up seems anticlimactic.
We expect our great film auteurs to somehow personify their work.
Disney was cuddly in a paternal way. Hitchcock dripped with portent and
irony on his TV shows. Lynch, who along with David Cronenberg is the
only other true American original in the suspense genre since the
Hollywood days of Hitch, is something else again. His voice is metallic
and nerdy in the Mr. Rogers mold. He says "beautiful" a lot and peppers
his talk with such "Fargo"-esque euphemisms as "By golly" and "I'll be
darned." And once you get beneath the gravity-defying hair, you see a
smiling, blandly boyish face that looks oddly like President Bill
Mention the resemblance to Lynch and he playfully corrects,
"Actually, Bill Clinton looks like me." How delicious to speculate that
the president of the United States emulates the director of "Wild at
Heart." If you then consider that the 51-year-old Lynch is the same age
as our chief executive (and purportedly a political conservative), you
can readily imagine them being separated at birth: One grows up to be
the most scandal-ridden idealist the White House has ever seen, the
other turns out surreal portraits of an America in which innocence and
perversion dwell in disconcertingly close proximity.
Innocence is a little harder to pin down in "Lost Highway," in
which Bill Pullman is a convicted wife-killer who inexplicably appears
to transform into a young auto mechanic (Balthazar Getty). Mystery piles
upon mystery: What happened in Pullman's prison cell? Are the dead wife
and Getty's lover, both played by Patricia Arquette, the same person?
And who is this ghoulish party-pooper played by Robert Blake, smirking
from behind a death mask that looks like the one thousand and first face
of Lon Chaney?
As in "Twin Peaks" and Antonioni's "Blow Up," Lynch's latest sets
up a tantalizing conundrum whose solution is finally less important then
the getting there, if not entirely beside the point. At the mention of
"Blow Up," the director coos with pleasure. "That was a great film," he
offers. "It's about abstractions, and perception, and understanding what
you see. Or not understanding. And happening into a mystery. All the
things I love.
"Human beings are like detectives. They love a mystery. They love
going where the mystery pulls them. What we don't like is a mystery
that's solved completely. It's a letdown. It always seems less than what
we imagined when the mystery was present. The last scene in `Blow Up' is
so perfect because you leave the theater still dreaming. Or the end of
`Chinatown,' where the guy says `Forget it, Jake, it's Chinatown.' It
explains so much but it only gives you a dream of a bigger mystery. Like
life. For me, I want to solve certain things but leave some room to
Lynch attributes the abrupt departure of his "Twin Peaks" series to
network demands that had the effect of closing off that dream space.
"When the murder of Laura Palmer was solved, the thing was basically
over. It just ran on its past power and had to end. We never meant for
that mystery to end - it could have receded into the background -
but it should never have ended. We were forced to end it. And that
Lynch resisted the impulse to provide any tidy answers to the
multiple mysteries of "Lost Highway." Ask him if he can explain what
really happened to the Bill Pullman and Balthazar Getty characters, and
he shoots back, without hesitating, "I know exactly what happened to
them. Yeah. But it doesn't matter what I know. Because the film is
itself whole. Nothing should be added, nothing should be subtracted."
Lynch is similarly reluctant to explain where some of his screwier
notions come from, like the log lady in "Twin Peaks," the ear in the
grass in "Blue Velvet," and perhaps creepiest of all, a trick cellphone
call that Bill Pullman makes at the urging of Robert Blake's Mystery
Man. To ferret out the source of this last bit is like asking a painter
- one of the many hats Lynch wears - why he chose a particular brush
"It came from an idea," he says cryptically. "I make films about
ideas I fall in love with."
The painterly side of Lynch comes to the fore in "Lost Highway,"
possibly his most visual film, given its long stretches of nightmarish,
nonverbal images. "There's a thing about film that's a lot like
music," he explains. `It can be abstract in places or anchored to
reality. Some things are beautifully and economically said in words, and
words are like instruments in an orchestra. They have to be a certain
way, like a clarinet solo. If you play it too fast, or its not warm
enough, it doesn't work as well. But it's talking to you.
"Film is a different language. And I'm happy in that language. But
in words I have a big problem."
Bill Pullman attempts to illustrate the method behind Lynch's
language, using an early scene in which his character receives an
"The way he describes and sets up a shot is immediately the
beginning of his direction. He won't say, `You've come back home and
you're feeling very troubled.' Rather, `You come in the room' - He
waits for a long time - `You look at the VCR' . . . Then suddenly
he'll throw in a musical term like, `Let's do it very mysterioso.' Or
`Do it more Kabuki,' as in a more heightened sense of reality. As an
artist he rejuvenates not just your sense of looking at the script but
your sense of looking at the world."
David Lynch movies are manna for psychotherapists, rife with
dreamlike images of midgets, highway dividing lines as glimpsed speeding
by through the front windshield of a car and, of course, fires. The
director proves to be alternately evasive and expansive when subjected
to a round of self-analysis regarding some of his screen obsessions.
On speeding highways: "I love two-lane highways. They say something
about the way things used to be, and about areas that don't have a lot
of people. On those two-lanes at night you get the sense of moving into
the unknown, and that's as thrilling a sense as human beings can have."
On the physically challenged: "I don't know. I saw Richard Pryor on
a talk show, talking about his life and his unbelievable experience,
what he's learned coming out on the other side. [Pryor, in a wheelchair
because of multiple sclerosis, plays a garage worker in "Lost Highway."]
I just loved hearing him talk, and wanted to work with him. I put him on
the phone in the office at Arnie's garage and set up a premise and he
ad-libbed for nine solid minutes. It was beautiful. And a portion of
that ended up in the film."
On fire: "I haven't set any. I love building fires in a fireplace.
It's startling what a unique texture it is. Fire is almost ethereal.
There are so many things it causes to happen inside you when you're
watching a fire. I think for human beings, always, when you get down to
the pure things that exist, like lightning and fire and rock, each one
holds so much. It's just closer to the source or something. Wood is
beautiful stuff. I could talk a long time about wood."
Lynch, who admits to being heavily influenced by the writings of
Franz Kafka and the paintings of Francis Bacon, would appear to be a
likely advocate for the symbolic interpretation of dreams. Does he put
much stock in dreams?
"Not in dreams, but in abstractions. In things that you can feel
within but can't see, kick or touch. Like detectives, who'll listen to
what a person is saying but they're feeling way more: their sense that a
person is lying to them, or is very nervous, or could kill me."
Does Lynch truck with psychoanalysis?
"There is a group of doctors that analyzed `Blue Velvet' - it
kicked in something. I went into a psychiatrist one time. I sat down and
said, `I have to ask you upfront if this process could in any way affect
my creativity.' And he looked at me and said, `David, I have to be
honest with you. It could.' And I had to leave.
"It's a tricky business. People always say artists need to suffer,
but they're not suffering when they are creating. The struggle can teach
you something you can use when you are healthy, you can share that
experience in some medium, but while you are in a depression, it doesn't
free you to create. I think [psychiatrists] can help you to a point if
you've stopped moving, but if you're moving about, then I'd say, if it's
not really badly broken, don't fix it."
In fact, Lynch had stopped moving artistically for a time. "Lost
Highway" is his first film in five years, only two of which were
involved in the writing and shooting of that picture. After the
phenomenal impact of "Blue Velvet" and "Twin Peaks" (which was nominated
for 14 Emmy awards), critics were less kind to "Wild at Heart" and
positively merciless to "Fire Walk With Me." What was he up to in the
interim? Was he affected by the backlash?
"I wrote a comedy with my friend Bob Engels called `Dream of the
Bovine,' which was a really dumb, really stupid,
meant-to-be-pitifully-bad-quality budget thing. Not too many people were
interested in that. I've been doing a lot of painting. And I'm building
some furniture, you know [Lynch designed much of the furnishings in
"Lost Highway"], trying to catch ideas.
"I think you could say the backlash played a part. But there was
also something in the air around the time that 'Fire Walk With Me' came
out that was not good for me. That's part of the three years of doing
nothing. It took about two years for this cloud to lift. And I could
feel it lifting, for sure. So it's a better time now."
Lynch's downturn coincided with the aftermath of his breakup with
"Blue Velvet" star Isabella Rossellini, a falling out that witnessed
the actress publicly playing the role of the wronged woman in the media.
"I can't say enough good things about Isabella," he says, nipping
that particular sore spot in the bud. "We're friends, and hopefully
we'll always be friends."
His current partner, Mary Sweeney, also is the editor and one of
the producers on "Lost Highway." During the past three decades, the
twice-divorced Lynch has sired three children in intervals that rival
his protracted film projects, ending with a 4 1/2-year-old by Sweeney.
Lynch concedes they are all artistically inclined. "I think everyone in
the beginning is artistically inclined, and then at a certain point it
can drop off. It didn't for my 28-year-old daughter, who is working on a
script, and I don't think it will for my 14-year-old son, either. They
all have their own way."
Family holds a special lure for Lynch. Recently he found himself
standing in front of his mother's ancestral home in Park Slope at 11
p.m. and decided to ring the doorbell. "I saw the lights on. The guy who
bought it from my mother and her two brothers still lives there. He was
still awake, but he didn't appreciate me showing up quite that late. But
he said he would give me a tour of the place if I came by another
There is something endearing in the naivete - some might call it
chutzpah - that would free Lynch to knock on a New York City door
just before the witching hour. This provincial mind-set may stem from
his Eagle scout youth in Idaho, Washington and birthtown of Missoula,
Mont., where he was raised the son of a research scientist. The dark
side of Lynch's night-owl visit is that it may have emerged from the
same voyeuristic impulse that informs his movies, as if he hoped to
catch someone in the act of doing something forbidden.
"I'm convinced we all are voyeurs," he admits. "It's part of the
detective thing. We want to know secrets and we want to know what goes
on behind those windows. And not in a way that we would use to hurt
anyone. There's an entertainment value to it, but at the same time we
want to know: What do humans do? Do they do the same things as I do?
It's a gaining of some sort of knowledge, I think."
Now that Lynch has let go of "Lost Highway," he will return to his
home in the Hollywood Hills to pursue knowledge through his painting and
hopefully catch a few ideas for his next picture. "Painting is something
that is always changing and expanding. And the only way to evolve is
through the act of painting. You can think about it, but it's not the
same as being there. So when you return to painting after a break, you
start up in a very strange place. It's very discombobulated and takes
quite a while to get back into where you are solidly evolving. The thing
I find is that I have a long way to go. But it's a great trip."
At that last thought Lynch removes the cigarette from his lips and
holds it erect in front of his nose, peering at the ash intently as it
burns slowly downward and falls to the floor.