“THE FIRST TIME I asked David Lynch if he could define the word ‘Lynchian,’ he changed the subject,” writes Dennis Lim in David Lynch: The Man from Another Place, his new critical biography of America’s strangest popular filmmaker. Lim — a former film editor at The Village Voice and the current director of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center — dives deep into the singular mind of Lynch, a tangle of fears, anxieties, and desires that manage to reflect the complexities of contemporary American life. Viewers and critics have puzzled over Lynch’s films since his 1977 feature debut Eraserhead became a midnight movie hit; 40 years later, in 2017, Showtime will debut a new, entirely Lynch-directed season of Twin Peaks, the murder-mystery television drama that enraptured millions of viewers upon its premiere in 1990.
In The Man from Another Place, a sharp and concise work of criticism, Lim draws on Lynch’s 2006 book Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity, Chris Rodley’s book-length interview Lynch on Lynch, various magazine articles, and his own interviews with Lynch and others who have worked with him to paint a picture of an inimitable and iconic American artist. I spoke to Lim by phone.
LARA ZARUM: Why Lynch? How long have you had this book in your head?
DENNIS LIM: The book came about because I was asked to come up with a proposal for a series of small critical biographies that James Atlas was editing for Amazon called “Icons.” Lynch was for me the most logical subject. He’s someone I’ve been thinking about, who’s been meaningful to me, for well over half my life. I’ve written about his work quite a lot over the years, and he seemed like an inexhaustible subject that I could live with for a few years and still not fully crack. And having written the book now, I actually feel like I’m not sure that I have cracked Lynch.
You’ve said that Lynch’s films taught you the value of confusion in a work of art. I think it’s easy for a viewer who feels confused by a film to take it as an affront — like the filmmaker is trying to trick them. How does this sense of confusion add value to your experience of watching a movie?
In a very obvious sense, it just gives you more to think about once you’re done with the experience of watching something. But I don’t know that it’s just true of films. I think it’s true of literature, it’s true of art. There are great paintings I’ve sat before and I didn’t really know what to think. There are great books that leave me feeling very unresolved. With Lynch, that feeling of confusion began by watching Blue Velvet at a relatively young age and continued into the experience of watching Twin Peaks — which progresses for large stretches like a normal television series, but it’s also deeply unnerving and bizarre and confusing at many stages, especially if you’re a relatively young and impressionable viewer. Maybe it’s the sense that movies should have three acts, movies should have narratives, and if there’s a problem there should be a solution. Maybe that’s why people are confused or, as you say, they feel like it’s a bit of an affront if things don’t resolve themselves. Blue Velvet, on a narrative level, resolves itself, because there is a happy ending — the bad guy is killed, the damsel in distress is saved. But I don’t know that it makes the film any less confusing.
You write that the defining question of a David Lynch movie is “how are we supposed to feel about this?” Revisiting his work for this book, were you surprised at all by your reactions to any of his films? Had they changed since the first viewing?
What I did find was that they held up, for the most part, extremely well to repeat viewings. I guess I was surprised by how much I was still kind of unnerved by films that I knew very well. Blue Velvet, to come back to it, I had seen a couple times over the years, but to really watch it again, I still felt like I didn’t quite know it. That was exciting.
Certain films have held up better than their reputation might suggest. Dune, despite being a fairly clumsy film narratively speaking, is really impressive in many ways. The amount of work that went into creating these multiple worlds that the film exists in — that was impressive. I was very drawn to just the sheer amount of peripheral stuff Lynch had produced throughout his career. And some of this stuff I was discovering for the first time, or some of it I was looking at closely for the first time: like the film he made for Christian Dior starring Marion Cotillard, which was actually the longest film he’s made, in a way, since Inland Empire, from about five years ago, called Lady Blue Shanghai.
A lot of what I was interested in was just the sensibility of the Lynchian. How do you define it, how did that enter the popular consciousness, how did that come to capture the popular imagination. Obviously the feature films are the best manifestations of it, but also to look at the short works and the peripheral work, that was fun as well.
You open the book by remarking that the word “Lynchian” has become “an adjective for our time.” Do you think the term is overused, or commonly misused?
Yeah, I definitely think it is both. It’s a very evocative shorthand. I think now it’s basically just a synonym for “weird.” It’s interesting that you can use the word and people know what you mean. I would say a lot of the popular writing on Lynch is fairly clichéd and superficial. He’s inspired a lot of academic and theoretical writing that is interesting and goes quite deep, but I think a lot of the popular writing on Lynch does tend to just leave it as, “He’s a weirdo and the films are strange and he talks funny and weird things happen in his films.” It’s obviously a very particular kind of strange, which I think has a lot to do with ideas of the uncanny — it has a lot to do with very primal fears. I think the Lynchian is in many ways a very phobic sensibility. Fear is something that’s very important to him.
I want to talk a bit about the acting in his movies. He gets these very stilted, almost artificial performances out of his actors, and when I’m watching a Lynch movie I’m always trying to figure out how he manages to make that very earnest acting style work when a similar performance in another movie would just come off as bad acting.
I think a lot of it is just the control that he exercises on the tone of the films, which is seamless, and the acting is just one part of it. It has to do with the lines that are written for the actors, it has to do with how the scene is set up, it has to do with cinematography and production design and sound design. It’s all very much part of his aesthetic. That style of acting is kind of a Lynch specialty. Blue Velvet is the most famous early example of it, with Kyle MacLachlan and Laura Dern’s characters, where they seem just so impossibly sincere.
That’s a key, too, to this Lynchian question of how are we supposed to feel about the bad acting. That robin scene in Blue Velvet, that famous monologue that Laura Dern gives — people do not know how to read that scene. Is she serious? Are we supposed to laugh at her? And I think Lynch is very good at confusing these two registers, or combining them. He’s not entirely sincere and he’s not entirely ironic, and I think that is a very productive register for a film to assume. I think that’s part of the confusion of the film, it’s part of what’s unnerving, it’s part of what’s funny, sometimes. It’s part of what’s exciting about what you’re watching — when you’re not entirely sure how to situate yourself in relation to the film.
I’ve always assumed your tastes run more toward obscure art-house films than big Hollywood productions, and it strikes me that Lynch is one of those rare artists who falls in between. He makes these difficult, obscure films that are very popular, and also makes commercials and music videos. A lot of filmmakers make weird movies, but they don’t all have the stature of David Lynch. Why do you think Lynch’s films have been so popular with even mainstream audiences?
I mean, obviously they all haven’t been popular. Some of them are fairly obscure. I do think only serious devoted Lynch fans have seen Inland Empire, for instance, even though I would say that it did fairly well for a rather experimental film. I think a lot of it has to do with the degree to which his films resonate with the mood of the moment: how much they are plugged in to the fears and desires of the moment. If you think about it, every period of Lynch’s career has had some work that kind of defined the period. Eraserhead, Blue Velvet, Twin Peaks, Mulholland Drive — these are certainly not niche works. They were popular works, and I think if you look at each one, there’s a reason. There’s a way the film reflected something in the culture. Blue Velvet is such a defining, landmark text of the 1980s. It’s textbook postmodernism, but I think it relates to certain ideas of America that were very much in the air in the Reagan years; certain ideas of good and evil, of fear, innocence. Lynch is an artist who draws from his own unconscious and who tries to activate something in the unconscious of his viewers.
You write about the process of making a Lynch film, and it was surprising to me how tightly constructed and controlled these movies are, even though the result often feels like a free-form dive into the unconscious.
This sense of the work coming from the unconscious or having some kind of associative form — that may be in the conception of the work. But I think in the making of the work, he’s a trained artist and he knows structure. For him, control is of paramount importance, as somebody who started in studio art. You have a canvas in front of you, and you see it through from start to finish, and he still tries to do that with the collaborative endeavors. He insists on more control than almost any filmmaker of his generation. The reason he’s had a somewhat difficult relationship with studio filmmaking or industrial filmmaking is because he wants his hands on all aspects of the process. He has a formal understanding of how art achieves its effects that is true I think of all good artists.
The idea of a movie like Blue Velvet being released by a big studio today is unthinkable. Do you think a filmmaker like Lynch, who straddles both popular and art-house sensibilities, could create a body of work like his today?
I don’t think a studio would greenlight a film like Blue Velvet, but I think things have changed in different ways — the costs of production and the barriers to entry are lower. The film industry and film culture are completely different from when Lynch got his start in the ’70s. I think it’s entirely possible for singular, radical voices to emerge. I just don’t know that they’ll be able to infiltrate the mainstream as quickly or to the degree that somebody like Lynch did decades ago.
Is that good or bad?
I don’t know. I don’t want to sound like oh, those were the days. I feel like there are still plenty of great artists and great filmmakers. You can’t underestimate the degree to which a savvy artist can figure out ways to reach an audience.
That’s what I’ve always loved about television — just seeing what makes it on air.
Exactly. And I think it’s interesting that this is the time that Lynch has returned to television, with Twin Peaks. This is somebody who disavowed television repeatedly throughout his career but was always drawn to it because it gave him something that cinema couldn’t: the serial form, for one thing, a much larger canvas, a larger audience. Twin Peaks was just ahead of its time. He’s waited it out, and this is obviously a moment when there’s a lot more risk-taking in television — American television, at least — than American cinema. So I think it’s all kind of aligned for him now. It’s a perfect moment for him to go back to TV.