As its title suggests, film critic Dennis Lim’s new book, David Lynch: The Man From Another Place, is not a standard biography. But how could it be when its subject is an artist who has so consistently defied the typical rules of film and television over the course of his nearly 50-year career—from introducing us to the eery mind of Jack Nance’s Henry in Eraserhead (1977) to unravelling the seething, dark underbelly of Twin Peaks, Washington?
Rather than offer a linear narrative through Lynch’s life and work, Lim, a former critic for the Village Voice who is now director of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center, provides different paths that arrive at one clear conclusion: there is no single way to understand David Lynch.
Over the course of 178 pages, Lim deftly interweaves Lynch’s personal life and his multilayered work, drawing on Lynch’s manifesto on meditation, Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness and Creativity; filmmaker Chris Rodley’s interviews with the director in the mid-1990s, collected in a volume titled Lynch on Lynch; his own conversations with Lynch; and other sources.
In the book’s introduction, Lim describes Lynch’s decision, upon reading Robert Henri’s The Art Spirit, to pursue what he terms “the art life.” Describing this path in Catching the Big Fish, Lynch explains, “The art life means a freedom to have time for the good things to happen. There’s not a lot of time for other things.” In arguably achieving this endeavor, Lynch has allowed his life and his work to bleed into each other, and just as in his films, one is sometimes left questioning which part is a dream and which part is reality.
In an e-mail exchange below, which has been lightly edited, I spoke more with Lim about his relationship to Lynch and his desire to understand and interpret the enigmatic filmmaker’s work.
ARTnews: Why did you want to write this book?
Dennis Lim: Lynch is probably the living filmmaker who means the most to me. The main impulse was to examine why his films resonate so powerfully, and to think about why someone who has made so few films, relatively speaking, looms so large as a cultural reference point. Why are his films so potent, so unnerving? What are they tapping into, in us and in the culture? It wasn’t about providing a definitive answer so much as suggesting some possibilities.
How did you decide on the structure for the book?
The book proceeds more or less chronologically, film by film, but there are also detours and digressions to explore the various contexts in which these films exist: his life story, most obviously, but also his studio art and other practices, his interest in spirituality, larger trends in film culture and the film industry, and so on. There are a few themes that run through the book and reappear throughout: Lynch’s use of language, the idea of Lynch as a profoundly American artist, the degree to which his films reflect the mood of the moment.
I loved the way you framed Blue Velvet (1986) as this indelible sort of rite of passage. Can you remember the first time you saw Blue Velvet, and how did it leave you feeling?
I saw it on VHS, and I was 14. It was as shocking as it was confusing, which I’m sure was the case with many other viewers. It’s the rare coming-of-age story that actually induces in the viewer the same contradictory mix of emotions that its protagonist, Jeffrey, is experiencing: curiosity, disgust, excitement, etc.
Along those lines, is there a particular Lynch project which stands out as a favorite of yours? If so, why?
It’s hard to pick one. As my first Lynch, Blue Velvet has an obvious personal significance, and I’ve probably watched Mulholland Drive (2001) more often than any other Lynch film. But I’m also drawn to the period when he was most out of favor: the early/mid-’90s, when he made some of his least popular films, Fire Walk With Me (1992) and Lost Highway (1997), both of which were attacked or dismissed at the time. There’s a fault line somewhere in there—it’s a turning point for Lynch. I think it’s the moment his films become more radical and free, more direct in their expression of emotion, more interested in the possibilities of narrative.
In the brilliant chapter on Mulholland Drive you talk of the contrasting dream reality/nightmare hyper-reality in the first two-thirds and last third of the film. In the same way our dreams are so open to interpretation, would you say this narrative device by Lynch is what has contributed to the myriad fan theories around this film?
I think the fandom surrounding Mulholland Drive has to do in part with it being probably the most pleasurable of all Lynch films. It’s steeped in cinematic references and is a kind of mournful elegy to old Hollywood. It’s also the kind of puzzle narrative that actually lends itself to being solved—there are clues and things add up—unlike Inland Empire (2006), which is less linear and more open-ended, and for that reason more challenging and potentially off-putting to audiences.
You refer to the link drawn between Lynch’s paintings and the Art Brut movement. How would you say this comparison applies to the way Lynch crafts his films, specifically with regards to his emphasis on channeling ideas from the unconscious mind?
The paintings and films are very different. I think the paintings sometimes aspire to a kind of willful naiveté, but I don’t think that’s true of the films, which tend to produce very complex reactions in the viewer. Lynch has talked about the importance of meditation in boosting creativity, and some of his films may try to mirror the workings of the unconscious, but for the most part, they’re very controlled and structured.
Have you received any comments or feedback from Lynch about the book?
No. I’m sending him a copy, but knowing him, I don’t think he’ll want to read it, which is understandable. He’s happy for people to interpret his work, but is generally not so keen on hearing those interpretations.
Do you have any particular thoughts/reservations on Lynch directing the upcoming season of Twin Peaks?
His previous experiences with TV were with broadcast networks, and at a much more risk-averse time for the medium. This time, he’s getting to do it exactly the way he wants. I think in some ways he’s a more experimental filmmaker now than he was when he worked on Twin Peaks 25 years ago. I expect he’ll be willing to take some big risks and I’m excited to see him work on such a big canvas.