I have been a David Lynch fan for many years. His cryptic narratives and the sense of dread that pervades his films have always gripped me. As a former cinema studies student, I have also enjoyed his intertextual references to classic Hollywood movies (particularly films noir from the 1940s and 1950s). So you can imagine my excitement when a review copy of David Lynch Interviews landed in my letterbox.
David Lynch Interviews belongs to the “Conversations with Filmmakers Series”, published by the University Press of Mississippi. Editor Richard A. Barney has compiled a collection of interviews with Lynch, most of which have previously appeared in publications such as Cinema Papers, Film Comment and Salon.com. These interviews span the period between 1977 (when Lynch was promoting Eraserhead) and 2008 (which was two years after his most recent feature, Inland Empire, was released).
Throughout the book, Lynch is portrayed as a “wholesomely American” guy who happens to be interested in the strange and perverse (p. 51); Mel Brooks famously describing him as “Jimmy Stewart from Mars” (p. 180). Lynch discusses his passion for filmmaking, as well as for other creative pursuits such as painting and furniture design. Lynch also talks about his artistic influences. These influences include the work of Alfred Hitchcock and Stanley Kubrick (p. 47). Lynch also admits to a fondness for Sunset Blvd. (Billy Wilder, 1950), which will come as little surprise to those who have seen his Mulholland Dr. (2001) (p. 123). Yet despite this, Lynch insists that he is not a huge “film buff” (p. 142). He jokes: “I become very nervous when I go to a film because I worry so much about the director and it is hard for me to digest my popcorn” (p. 142).
A personal highlight of David Lynch Interviews is the way Lynch champions the importance of mystery and imagination to the experience of watching films. This is evident in the following quote from the press conference for Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (1992). This conference was held at the Cannes Film Festival in 1992, where the film received a notoriously “poor reception” at a press screening (p. 135). Lynch is responding to a reporter who asks him whether that film will be comprehensible to those who are unfamiliar with the Twin Peaks television series.
There is a danger […] that the more you know about anything. The more depth of appreciation you can get from it. (sic) But I think, although I have been wrong many times in the past, that someone could get very much (from the film) not having seen anything from the series.
There are things in there that they wouldn’t understand as much as some others, who have seen the series. But abstractions are a good thing and they exist all around us anyway. They sometimes can conjure up a thrilling experience within the person. (p. 135)
The above quote will come as cold comfort to anyone who has tried to understand what the hell David Bowie’s cameo in Fire Walk With Me was all about. This quote is also unlikely to change the minds of viewers (many of whom I have enjoyed debating with over the years) who are convinced that Lynch’s films are just intentionally – and annoyingly – obscure. For this reviewer, Lynch’s ability to leave spectators wondering “what happened?”, rather than giving them easy answers, is one of his key strengths. This is what makes his work such a pleasure to critically analyse, as well as to simply watch “for fun”.
Relatedly, Lynch displays a nice appreciation for the power of secrets and secrecy: “Part of the thing about secrets is that they have a certain kind of mystery to me. A dark secret. Just the words ‘dark secret’ are so beautiful […] I don’t want to see something so clearly that it would destroy an imaginary picture.” (p. 104)
These observations evoke memories of Blue Velvet (1986), in which naïve college student Jeffrey Beaumont (played by Kyle MacLachlan) uncovers the horrifying secrets that lurk within the seemingly “respectable” small town in which he lives. Also recall Lost Highway (1997), in which the middle-aged musician Fred Madison (Bill Pullman) is accused of killing his wife (Patricia Arquette), despite not remembering her murder at all. Fred is incarcerated, and subsequently metamorphoses (or does he?) into the much-younger Pete Dayton (Balthazar Getty). Pete (and the viewer) wonders how he wound up in a jail cell, and why the gangster’s moll he fancies (and who is also portrayed by Arquette) looks so eerily familiar. The “dark secrets” that lie at the heart of Lost Highway make this one of Lynch’s most intriguing films.
Additionally, this collection provides a fascinating perspective on how attitudes towards film style, as well as towards cinematic representations of sex and violence, have remained consistent and also changed over time. I think it is fair to say that Eraserhead is as bizarre and mind-numbingly abstract today as it was back in 1977. Conversely, some younger readers may have difficulty comprehending the shocked responses to the “scenes of sexual degradation” (p. 41) that are featured in Blue Velvet. Upon its release, one viewer was quoted as describing the film as “the most controversial movie in years” (p. 41). Blue Velvet still has the power to disturb, and it is still ripe for a feminist analysis, but it now seems relatively tame when one considers the sexualised violence that is graphically depicted in more recent films such as Baise-moi (Virginie Despentes and Coralie Trinh Thi, 2000) and The Killer Inside Me (Michael Winterbottom, 2010).
Regrettably, not all of Lynch’s films are discussed at length (or, indeed, at all) in the David Lynch Interviews. There are only a few references to Dune (1984), which was a critical and commercial failure for the director. There is no mention of Nadja (Michael Almereyda, 1994) – upon which Lynch acted as Executive Producer and made a guest appearance as a morgue attendant – a little-known horror-comedy about a lesbian vampire who terrorises a group of angst-ridden Generation X-ers living in New York. Nadja’s noirish mise en scène, moments of surrealism and depictions of sadistic eroticism are all hallmarks of Lynch’s cinema, and I would have loved to have read about his experience of making this film, and his opinion of the end product.
Finally, and perhaps understandably in a collection of interviews, this book contains a degree of repetition. There are many references to the fact that Lynch’s affable persona conceals a dark and complex mind. There are numerous examples of Lynch becoming defensive and/or vague when reporters enquire about the “meaning” of his films (p. 244). Take the following exchange from the Fire Walk with Me press conference at Cannes:
Q: David Lynch, could you tell me the purposes of the dream sequences in the film and in the series?
Lynch: No, ma’am [Laughter] (p. 144)
Readers learn early on that attempting to get Lynch to “explain” his cinematic narratives is a fruitless endeavour. This reviewer found himself groaning rather than laughing when reporters pursued this line of enquiry. What’s the point? I screamed at the book in front of me.
Overall, David Lynch Interviews makes a useful companion piece to Chris Rodley’s 1997 collection Lynch on Lynch. Both texts provide a thorough insight into one of Hollywood’s most eccentric and imaginative filmmakers, and they do so using Lynch’s own words. This reviewer greatly anticipates the next output of cinematic weirdness to be unleashed by “Jimmy Stewart from Mars”.
Richard A. Barney (ed.), David Lynch Interviews, Conversations with Filmmakers Series, The University Press of Mississippi, Mississippi, 2009.