Philip Matthews reviews a new memoir of genius director David Lynch, who emerges from the book as a “happy neurotic”.
Dougie heard the name and everything changed. If you watched last year’s mesmerising Twin Peaks reboot, Twin Peaks: The Return, you will know what I mean. If you didn’t, spoilers follow. We are deep into episode 15. Dougie, the goofy and barely conscious doppelganger of Agent Cooper – one of four parts played skilfully by the same actor, Kyle McLachlan – is in the lounge of his Las Vegas home. Billy Wilder’s classic film about Hollywood mythology, Sunset Boulevard, is playing on TV. Suddenly Dougie hears a name come out of the television: “Gordon Cole”. In Sunset Boulevard, Gordon Cole is just a minor character, but Twin Peaks viewers already know that Gordon Cole is also the name of a hard-of-hearing FBI boss, played for laughs by the co-creator and director of the series, David Lynch.
The name penetrates the fog Dougie is stumbling around in and triggers a memory. Dougie sticks a fork into an electrical socket, slips into a coma and, as we all know, emerges from it as the real Cooper so that, after episodes of meandering, Lynch and co-writer Mark Frost can rush towards the reboot’s sad and ambiguous end.
And the homage? Lynch loves Sunset Boulevard, he loves Billy Wilder, “so the character I play in Twin Peaks is named in honour of Hollywood and Billy Wilder,” as he explains in the new biography/autobiography Room to Dream.
The Gordon Cole thing seems like a big deal because it’s a rare example of Lynch throwing a bone to those absorbed in decoding his films or solving the puzzles he never usually helps solve. In an online cinema culture that often degenerates into fan-theory sleuthing about whether this film’s universe overlaps with that film’s universe, Lynch has mostly been hilariously unwilling to play the game.
Have you ever wondered what Lynch’s 1977 debut Eraserhead is really about? Of course you have. Lynch could tell you but he won’t. “Eraserhead is my most spiritual film, but no one has ever gotten that from it,” he says. “The way it happened was I had these feelings, but I didn’t know what it was really about for me. So I get out the Bible and start reading, and I’m reading along, reading along, and I come to this sentence and I say, ‘That’s exactly it.’ I can’t say which sentence it is, though.”
They say in politics that explaining is losing. In art, explaining is ruining. Lynch’s reluctance to spell it all out creates, as the book’s title says, room to dream. My own theory about Eraserhead is that it’s a riff on It’s a Wonderful Life. Despite its reputation as a seasonal heartwarmer, It’s a Wonderful Life is really as dark as Sunset Boulevard. Like Eraserhead, it is driven by anxieties about fatherhood and includes a cosmic dimension or a cosmic scale, maybe a metaphysical dimension, that has been in everything Lynch has made since Eraserhead to some degree, including the seemingly quotidian Disney film The Straight Story. There are even biographical parallels. Like Jimmy Stewart’s character George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, the young Lynch had an after-school job delivering prescriptions for a drug store. Bailey was also, like Gordon Cole, hard of hearing.
It might seem surprising that an artist as private and wilfully inscrutable as Lynch consented to this mix of biography and autobiography, in which other stories – some have been told before and some are new – also show how his life has or has not fed into the work. Standard, fact-based biographical chapters by journalist and critic Kristine McKenna alternate with Lynch’s response to those chapters. There are fewer contradictions between the two accounts than you might expect, and they are fairly minor, along the lines of whether Lynch encouraged the people working on Eraserhead to get their horoscopes read by “this guy named James in some canyon”, as a production manager tells McKenna (Lynch responds: “I never made anybody go have their chart done”). The impression is of a genial but stubborn eccentric who inspires deep loyalty and kindness in those who work with him. Apart from a few ex-wives or partners – most notably, Isabella Rossellini – who had the bad luck to overlap with other ex-wives or partners, those commenting on Lynch are so complimentary they border on cultish. Twin Peaks actress Kimmy Robertson believes that “David’s hair does something and it has a function and the function has to do with God”. The Lynch quiff as a heavenly antenna.
Lynch emerges from this as a happy neurotic, a homebody with no Hollywood ambitions who prefers to potter around in his home recording studio or produce paintings than appear at some awards show or sit in meetings with movie people. He likes to eat the same thing every day. For years, he went to a certain diner at a set time every afternoon and always had a few coffees and a chocolate milkshake. Someone describes him as being as “calm as a Hindu cow” and he explains he stopped being angry when he took up Transcendental Meditation in the 1970s. Things are often “beautiful” or “the real deal” (actor Brad Dourif, who appeared as one of the creeps in Blue Velvet, encountered a kind of innocence “that manifested as total enthusiasm”). Lynch recalls a happy Midwestern childhood in the 1950s and at times his gee-whiz tone reminds me of the current President of the United States, who is from the same generation. “Barry is a great guy who knows what he’s doing, and he did a good job,” Lynch says of the special effects man on Lost Highway, but sounding a bit like Trump endorsing some senator from Oklahoma.
So that is the received Lynch image: normal yet weird. How does a happy, sunshiny guy like this produce such great, often disturbing art? In Hollywood, it is usually the other way round: horrible guys make nice movies with happy endings. I think there is something about how his memory and senses operate. No one in this book identifies it, but Lynch seems to have a kind of synaesthesia, where the sound of words produces sensations or images. His father worked at the Boise Basin Experimental Forest in Idaho. “The word ‘experimental’ is so beautiful. I just love it,” Lynch gushes. He said similar things about the titles Lost Highway and Inland Empire, the feelings and pictures they created. He remembers riding his bike around at night in the 1950s. Most houses had lights on and seemed warm, but some were dark: “I’d get a feeling from those houses of stuff going on that wasn’t happy.” Who doesn’t picture the dreadful Palmer house at the end of Twin Peaks: The Return when they read a sentence like that?
The Palmer house is the scene of a tragedy that Lynch and his double, Agent Cooper, cannot stop thinking about and replaying. Where do they come from, these dead girls? Laura Palmer is just one of a number of young women abused and brutalised by the world of men once they become inconvenient – see also the women of Inland Empire, Lost Highway and Mulholland Drive. Room to Dream finds the source of this recurring archetype. Lynch and Frost’s first project as co-writers was an adaptation of Anthony Summers’ book Goddess: The Secret Lives of Marilyn Monroe, which they titled Venus Descending. It was never made, possibly because it implicated Robert Kennedy in Monroe’s death, according to Frost, but it influenced almost everything that came after. “Marilyn Monroe was this loose cannon there at the end and they had to get rid of her,” Lynch says. “But it’s a story I kept loving. You could say that Laura Palmer is Marilyn Monroe, and that Mulholland Drive is about Marilyn Monroe, too. Everything is about Marilyn Monroe.”
Earlier memories found their way into Blue Velvet, which may still be the most personal of Lynch films, even more so than Eraserhead. The fictional town of Lumberton felt like a town Lynch lived in, with its tranquil daytime surfaces and its emptiness and danger at night. There is a childhood story Lynch has told a few times, of being out with his brother at night and seeing a naked woman with very white skin appear out of the dark. “It seemed to me that her skin was the colour of milk, and she had a bloodied mouth. She couldn’t walk very well, and she was in bad shape … She was coming toward us but not really seeing us.” His brother started to cry. “She was scared and beat up, and even though she was traumatised, she was beautiful.” That memory was reproduced almost exactly in Blue Velvet, along another involving Lynch and some friends and “this crazy older kid with a hot car driving dangerously”. That became Blue Velvet’s terrifying night-time joyride and the crazy older kid evolved into Dennis Hopper’s gas-huffing Frank Booth, who Lynch thinks of, maybe a little alarmingly, as a romantic 1950s “rebel dream guy”.
None of his work contrasts darkness and light with as much intensity as Blue Velvet. It followed the disaster of Dune, an overblown, impersonal and mostly incoherent sci-fi epic that introduced Kyle McLachlan to the world and featured the startling image of Sting in a kind of rubber loincloth (“I’m grateful to be part of his canon,” says Sting). Blue Velvet was low-budget, highly personal and dreamlike. And there was something deeply moving in noticing that the central trio of Twin Peaks: The Return – Lynch, McLachlan and Laura Dern as Diane/Linda – first came together more than 30 years earlier in Blue Velvet, along with another key player in the Lynch universe, composer Angelo Badalamenti. Lynch and Badalamenti’s collaboration with singer Julee Cruise was a vital part of the Lynchmania that briefly swept the world in the early 1990s before Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me killed it by being too tough and alienating. Didn’t everyone have that dreamy ambient Cruise album, Floating Into the Night? The collaboration happened because Lynch was not able to use This Mortal Coil’s “Song to the Siren” in Blue Velvet, so they created their own version (“It goes into a cosmic kind of thing,” Lynch says accurately of “Song to the Siren”). It all worked out, says Lynch, the serene believer in fate and balance: “You never know how things happen, and Angelo, bless his heart, he’s the greatest.”
Of course, there is movie world gossip in Room to Dream. Without spoiling the book, here is some. The director Lynch namechecks the most often is Fellini, who he visited in hospital in Italy only hours before his death (a similar thing happened with Lynch and his grandfather). When he met Billy Wilder, Wilder said, “David, I love Blue Velvet”. Twin Peaks fans will notice that two of Lynch’s teenage girlfriends were named Judy and Linda, and a third had the surname Briggs. The same fans won’t be surprised to learn that Lynch also really likes sweeping. The first time he smoked marijuana he got so wasted he had to walk out of a Bob Dylan concert. “Nobody walks out on Dylan!” said his room mate Peter Wolf, who went on to become the singer in the J Geils Band (does that story sound true?).
There is more, and some of it will be new even to fans. Anthony Hopkins seems to have been a complete jerk during the making of The Elephant Man, and even tried to get Lynch fired, but John Hurt became a good friend and was ready to step in when Richard Farnsworth thought he couldn’t manage The Straight Story. Comedian Mel Brooks, whose company produced The Elephant Man, was also endlessly generous and kind. Lynch wanted Helen Mirren for the role of Dorothy Vallens in Blue Velvet; she declined but suggested the storyline in which Dorothy (eventually played by Rossellini) has a child. Dennis Hopper’s brain was apparently too fried from years of drug use to remember the words of “In Dreams” in Blue Velvet’s famous lip-synching scene, which is why Dean Stockwell did it. That said, Hopper stayed sober during the shoot and became the most responsible actor on set, to the point of nagging those who didn’t turn up on time, according to cinematographer Fred Elmes. Lynch also has some very funny stories about Marlon Brando.
As both a biography and a memoir, Room to Dream will become the standard work, especially as Twin Peaks: The Return could be Lynch’s last hurrah as a director of film and television. It should also prompt some reconsideration of the films that failed to impress viewers as much as they should have the first time around. In other words, it’s still depressing to see how people who should have known better responded to Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me, whose status as a horror masterpiece has only been enhanced by the similar interplay of horror, weird humour and nostalgia in the better received Twin Peaks: The Return (maybe the world has caught up). Audiences booed when Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me played at Cannes and Quentin Tarantino complained that Lynch has “disappeared so far up his own ass that I have no desire to see another David Lynch movie”. Who knows if Tarantino has ever reflected on the irony of that comment.
The Straight Story and Inland Empire should also be reconsidered. Taken at the time as a quaint, family-friendly anomaly, or a breather from all the weirdness, The Straight Story is highly Lynchian in its view of small-town goodness and the evil that threatens it. It also has some of the finest acting of any Lynch film. Room to Dream reveals his knack for directing actors, often using highly intuitive or surreal instructions (“Imagine being a child and seeing a hummingbird buzzing around your father’s head as he speaks to you … What would it be like to see fire for the first time?”). The loose, experimental Inland Empire is a grainy, three-hour-long nightmare about Hollywood and the breakdown of identity that is harder to love but rewards efforts to comprehend it, as its editor Noriko Miyakawa tells McKenna: “Inland Empire is an expression of David’s belief in different worlds and dimensions. Everything is in it and everything is connected … The parts of the film you don’t understand point to places in yourself that need examining.”
If that all seems too clear and straight forward, too reminiscent of therapy and solutions and the fiction that there are answers to questions and that clues always add up to something, turn instead to Lynch’s typically Lynchian summary of Inland Empire: “You enter the film in one place and you come out in another. The film seemed short to me, though.”
Room to Dream by David Lynch and Kristine McKenna (Text, $40) is available from Unity Books.
The Bulletin is The Spinoff’s acclaimed daily digest of New Zealand’s most important stories, delivered directly to your inbox each morning.