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David Lynch’s Sacred Clay – Los Angeles Review of Books

CRITICS GENERALLY DEFINE “Lynchian” as the cohabitation of the macabre and the mundane. The severed ear hidden in the field in Blue Velvet may be the most iconic representation of this junction, but it’s everywhere in David Lynch’s work: from Twin Peaks’s sweet, brochure-like title sequence of a mountainous town that, as it turns out, hides Laura Palmer’s corpse and many other monstrosities, to the arrival of Naomi Watts’s aspiring actress Betty in a dreamlike Hollywood in Mulholland Drive, before the nightmare of that city consumes her. In Lynch’s early work, the small town is the theater of this dance of innocence and evil, but in his later films, namely the loose trilogy of Lost Highway (1997), Mulholland Drive (2001), and Inland Empire (2006), the macabre and the mundane coexist in the individual soul. Upon reading Room to Dream — Lynch’s newly released experimental memoir — one’s tempted to say that the same coupling exists in David Lynch himself.

With Lynch treading into his 70s, it’s an appropriate time for Room to Dream. This hybrid of biography and memoir by Lynch and journalist/critic Kristine McKenna offers hope of understanding an artist who, four decades into his career, remains a subject of much mystery and misinterpretation. Even his old school friends still don’t know the source of Lynch’s Lynchianism.

McKenna and Lynch alternate chapters, starting with McKenna, who covers a period of her subject’s life through extensive interviews with those who know and have worked with him, in turn prompting a chapter from the director about the same period. In sum, the book presents a quirky but ultimately lovable — and widely loved — man. With output as dark as his, one expects the outward oddity of an Alan Moore or a Tim Burton, or the intensity of a Terry Gilliam. When I describe him as one-part “mundane,” then, I don’t mean that Lynch is tedious in any sense, but that his persona is so endearing, so enamored of life and film, so — indeed — normal, that it’s confounding to think that behind this childlike chirpiness is the mind that gave us the ear and the depraved Frank Booth who severed it.

A straightforward summary of David’s upbringing, largely devoid of turbulence, would be a bore. The value of this book is in getting closer to the origins of Lynch’s art, which, as McKenna eloquently puts it, “resides in the complicated zone where the beautiful and the damned collide.” His early years seem to have provided the foundations. Born in 1946, he spent his childhood in Boise, Idaho, before moving to Alexandria, Virginia, as a teen, where he discovered his first love: painting. Nostalgia for Boise seems to have turned the middle-class small town into an ideal in Lynch’s heart that echoes in his work. McKenna writes:

The 1950s have never really gone away for Lynch. Moms in cotton shirtwaist dresses smiling as they pull freshly baked pies out of ovens; broad-chested dads in sport shirts cooking meat on a barbecue or heading off to work in suits; the ubiquitous cigarettes […] classic rock ‘n’ roll; diner waitresses wearing cute little caps; girls in bobby sox and saddle shoes, sweaters and pleated plaid skirts — these are all elements of Lynch’s aesthetic vocabulary.

There’s an elegy to this aesthetic in Mulholland Drive’s opening title sequence: splices of all those boys and girls swing dancing as if in a jitterbug contest. Hollywood is radiating ’50s congeniality as Betty emerges from the airport, escorted to her cab by a warm elderly couple expressing full confidence that they’ll soon see her on their TV screens. “Won’t that be the day!” Betty merrily replies. But the garish frozen smiles on that elderly couple as they leave Betty, like that of Mad magazine’s Alfred E. Neuman, offer a warning that this affable setting, like the vivid rosebushes that open Blue Velvet, will be subverted in due course.

Lynch’s father, Donald, worked for the agriculture department. McKenna posits, “Perhaps his father’s work dealing with diseased trees imbued him with a heightened awareness of what he has described as ‘the wild pain and decay’ that lurk beneath the surface of things.” In Lynch’s hands, however, decay is not a function of time and history as it is, say, in the writings of V. S. Naipaul and W. G. Sebald, but of the permanent presence of something threatening in humanity’s character. In part, his art is a parable of the rural-urban transition. Anxiety about big cities harassed him early, derived perhaps from childhood visits to New York. Lynch writes, “Everything about New York made me fearful. The subways were just unreal. Going down into this place, and the smell, and this wind would come with the trains, and the sound — I’d see different things in New York that made me fearful.” A move to Philadelphia in the mid-1960s, after unsuccessful attempts to keep a steady menial job in Alexandria, seems to have refined this anxiety into an artistic doctrine. According to McKenna, “The chaos of Philadelphia was in direct opposition to the abundance and optimism of the world he’d grown up in, and reconciling these two extremes was to become one of the enduring themes of his art.” The city was “dangerous and dirty,” providing “rich mulch for Lynch’s imagination.”

In Philadelphia, like the gushing water hydrant that gave Saul Bellow a new writing style, Lynch found his epiphany when, supposedly, some wind caused “a flicker of movement” in a painting he’d made of a figure standing among foliage. “Like a gift bestowed on him from the ether,” McKenna writes, “the idea of a moving painting clicked into focus in his mind.”

Some well-received shorts at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts yielded an opportunity, upon moving to Los Angeles, to make his poem to urban horror, Eraserhead (1977). An underground success, the film caught the attention of influential studio players, including Mel Brooks, who gave Lynch the opportunity to make The Elephant Man (1980), which would go on to be nominated for eight Academy Awards. Dune came next in 1984, an artistic and professional debacle that ended up being a necessary turning pointing, from which Lynch emerged more resolute to fully own his material. “You die two deaths […] And that was Dune,” he writes. “You die once because you sold out, and you die twice because it was a failure.” (Whereas with the 1992 critical and commercial flop, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me, he feels he only died once, since it was authentic Lynch.) Two years later, he got his revenge with a movie that was completely his.

Three things comingled to produce Blue Velvet in Lynch’s mind: Bobby Vinton’s song of the same name, which on a second hearing (after finding it “schmaltzy” the first time) summoned the image of green lawns, red lips, and, finally, a severed ear in a field. “I don’t know why it had to be an ear,” Lynch writes, “except it needed to be an opening of a part of the body […] The ear sits on the head and goes right into the mind, so it felt perfect.”

It is indeed captivating to read both McKenna and Lynch on the origin of his stories. Many like Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, and 1990’s Wild at Heart (based on a Barry Gifford novel), do have a basic plot, but their artistic merit is in their accumulation of effects and moments. As Julian Barnes wrote of a net in Flaubert’s Parrot: rather than “a meshed instrument designed to catch fish,” each can be seen as a “collection of holes tied together with string.” Room to Dream shows us how Lynch went about collecting his holes — from dreams he barely remembered, to a mysterious line spoken at the other end of a receiver, to people spotted on the side of the road who move him in some way and end up playing a role in one of his films. Collaborations were equally critical to his career. The most famous of these are Mark Frost, who co-created Twin Peaks and its reboot, and Angelo Badalamenti, who composed the series’s musical score, but others like Jack Fisk, a fellow painter and friend since the Alexandria days, and Dean Hurley, who mixed the sound of Inland Empire, also get their due.

As Lynch’s net gets wider, so, too, do the holes. By Lost Highway in 1997, the narrative barely coheres. Instead the pleasure is in a growing radicalism in Lynch’s storytelling: the Mystery Man who tells Bill Pullman’s Fred Madison not only that that they’ve met before, at Fred’s house, but that he, the Mystery Man, is at Fred’s house at that very moment, and goes on to prove it; Fred’s metamorphosis in prison into Pete, played by Balthazar Getty, a young man with a completely different life, though it does ultimately intersect with Fred’s again, at which point Pete turns back into Fred. Lost Highway offers a kind of quantum theory of personality, where you’re only probably who you are. Inland Empire, the most encrypted of all of Lynch’s movies, largely abolishes narrative altogether and instead ties disparate Lynch ideas — a sitcom of people in rabbit costumes, Polish prostitutes, psychosis — to a central story about a cursed film set.

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Lynch’s prose has all the innocence of the deceptive first part of a Lynch movie. The same guy who, McKenna tells us, finds pleasure in collecting human remains — embryos in bell jars, for example — and who once asked a woman who was about to have a hysterectomy if he could have her uterus, addresses the reader with things like, “I’ll tell you about a kiss I really remember.” About that encounter: “That was a kiss that got deeper and deeper, and it was lighting some fire.” About masturbation: “So I thought, I’m going to try this tonight. It took forever. Nothing was happening, right? And all of a sudden this feeling — I thought, Where is this feeling coming from? Whoa! The story was true and it was unbelievable. It was like discovering fire.” He doesn’t sound the least bit boastful when he says, “They thought I was so handsome. It was really great.” Or the least bit intimidating when he describes how “[a]nger came up in me like unreal.” His writing is sprayed with “sort ofs” and “kind ofs” and “so cools.” The hard work required to get Eraserhead into Cannes “almost killed me” — not because of the long hours themselves but because this meant giving up milkshake breaks. That, for Lynch, is one of the crises of fame.

There is, however, a problem with this kind of charm. It’s ultimately a performance, not in the sense that it’s inauthentic, but because it’s the voice of a raconteur; there’s something inevitably impersonal about it. Lynch doesn’t make you feel like you’re in a one-on-one with him, but instead like you’re one among several sitting on barstools around him. When McKenna writes of a divorce, she prepares us for Lynch’s perspective, but that never comes. His mother’s 2004 death in a car crash gets little attention from McKenna and none from Lynch — even as his ex-wife Mary Sweeney suggests “he was changed by his mother’s death.” Meanwhile, Lynch, a transcendental meditation devotee, devotes but a few pages to the death of the Indian guru Maharishi, whose funeral he flew to India to attend.

McKenna ends up not being too big a help here. While she understands her subject well, she’s also too close to him. Her fondness for her subject is not in itself a problem, especially given how universally loved Lynch seems to be. But when McKenna says, “Lynch is good at tuning out static,” or that “you’ve got to hand it to him” that he could make a film like Lost Highway, or that “[h]e doesn’t like it when things get too big and unwieldy, and he wants to be left in peace to make whatever it is he’s decided to make; it’s never been about fame or money for him,” she sounds less like a biographer than a friend. Even in discussing flops like Fire Walk with Me, McKenna seems keen not to hurt Lynch’s feelings. She seems much more comfortable calling a Lynch film a masterpiece.

Indeed, once we get to start of Lynch’s movie career, Room to Dream is less a biography than deep reporting of each of Lynch’s major projects, and some minor ones. Divorces are mentioned, for example, because they coincide with a film. Part of the problem is conceptual. Because Lynch would read the preceding McKenna chapter, it’s unsurprising that McKenna isn’t inclined toward too probing an account. But this sacrifices candor and revelation, and it’s hard to see the value of this peculiar framework. The fault may lie more with Lynch than McKenna, since he isn’t given to confession. His current wife, Emily Stofle, says, “We’re still very sweet to each other […] but he’s selfish, and as much as he meditates, I don’t know how self-reflective David is.” This comes not long after McKenna claims Lynch “has a unique gift for intimacy.” What draws readers to a biography or memoir like this is the question of how a great artist lives in and with the world. We don’t get the whole story here.

We do nevertheless get a sense of how Lynch’s imagination works, and how he brings that imagination to the screen. Blue Velvet’s editor seems to represent the majority view when he says, “It’s an honor to work with his material, because that’s sacred clay he produces.” If we don’t get enough of Lynch’s warts, at least we get to see him and the people around him playing with that clay.

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Shehryar Fazli is a Pakistan-based essayist, political analyst, and novelist.

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