One of the first video recordings of a David Lynch interview dates from 1979. The twenty-minute black-and-white segment was produced for a television course at the University of California, Los Angeles, and conducted in the oil fields of the Los Angeles Basin, one of the locations that constituted the barren wasteland of his first feature, “Eraserhead” (1977). This was the moment of Lynch’s first brush with cult fame: “Eraserhead” was a year into its three-year run as a midnight movie at the Nuart Theatre on Santa Monica Boulevard. Against a backdrop of hulking tanks and rusted pipes, an eager student reporter named Tom Christie directs questions to Lynch and his cinematographer, Frederick Elmes. The thirty-three-year-old Lynch, in a voice so flat and nasal it verges on cartoonish, enthuses about all the “neat areas…down in the tanks,” explaining that he found the location while driving by one day: “I think this place is beautiful, if you look at it right.” He directs the camera’s attention to a blotch on the ground: the remains of a cat, procured from a veterinarian for use in the film, that “got covered in tar and preserved itself.”
Citing the vague tag line that describes “Eraserhead” as “a dream of dark and troubling things,” Christie asks Lynch:
“Would you like to expound on that a little?” “No,” the filmmaker replies immediately, shaking his head and smiling. Christie reads from a review that likens the movie both to a dream and a nightmare. Lynch reacts with puzzlement. “I’m not sure I know what that means,” he says, before conceding, “That’s a fine statement, you know?”
Affable despite his elusiveness, Lynch seems less to be stonewalling than striving to verbalize daunting concepts with a vocabulary that might politely be termed basic.
“Eraserhead” was “a real, definite thing in my head,” he says. “It’s not like thrown-together abstract; it’s meant-to-be-that-way abstract.”
Christie points out an apparent incongruity: Lynch the family man (he was then newly remarried, with a young daughter, Jennifer, from his first marriage) and Lynch the creator of the dark, weird “Eraserhead.”
“I’m not all that strange, really,” Lynch responds. “Beneath a calm exterior is the subconscious, right? Everybody has their little—the denizens of the deep and all that.”
He proposes a working theory of filmmaking as world-making: “No matter how weird something is, no matter how strange the world is that you’re making a film about, it’s got to be a certain way. Once you see how that is, it can’t be another way or it’s not that place anymore. It breaks the mood or the feeling.” Finally he gets in a good closing one-liner, explaining his decision to cast the unknown Jack Nance and not a name actor in the film’s lead role:
“If you’re going into the netherworld, you don’t want to go in with Chuck Heston.”
The David Lynch of today is, in many ways, not so far removed from this pale, polite young man, doing his best not to squirm under interrogation. The floppy hair would later swoop up into a signature quiff. The unfussy attire — a light shirt and zip-up jacket in the video — would be formalized as a uniform: khaki slacks, a slightly rumpled black suit, and, most distinctive of all, a white shirt primly buttoned to the top. (This getup has not escaped the attention of men’s magazines. GQ has called the no-tie, buttoned-up style “the David Lynch look.” Esquire went so far as to dub the filmmaker an accidental fashion icon: “David Lynch dresses badly, but he gets away with it and you can’t.”)
In person, Lynch projects niceness. He has kindly eyes, a soft-featured handsomeness, an air of corn-fed good cheer. He has often sought out these very qualities in his actors, most notably Kyle MacLachlan, who bears a physical resemblance to him. But there is also something a bit strange about Lynch’s niceness — a heightened, golly-gee, stuck-in-the-fifties folksiness that some people think must be a put-on. The biography he typically uses for press releases consists of four words: “Eagle Scout, Missoula, Montana.” Whether innate or cultivated or both, the picture of David Lynch the straight-arrow square is striking for the obvious contrast with the darkness and extremity of the work, its obsession with grotesquerie and depravity. In view of the work, in fact, Lynch’s mild-mannered calm can seem somewhat creepy. This is the contradiction — David Lynch the all-American weirdo — that defines how we think about him. Not for nothing did Mel Brooks call him “Jimmy Stewart from Mars” and David Foster Wallace describe his voice as “Jimmy Stewart on acid.”
That voice has become more caricatured over the years, even the subject of self-parody. Most of us know it from Lynch’s recurring cameo as the hard-of-hearing F.B.I. bureau chief Gordon Cole in “Twin Peaks,” whose foghorn delivery only slightly exaggerates Lynch’s speaking voice. So much about Lynch’s fraught relationship with language is summed up in that voice, in its unnervingly high volume and halting cadences. It’s clear from the 1979 footage — and from almost every interview he has done since — that words do not come easily to him. Both Lynch and his first wife, Peggy Reavey (née Lentz), have referred to his “pre-verbal” years, a phase that lasted into his early twenties, when he had a hard time stringing even more than a few words together. In his early short film, “The Alphabet,” verbal learning is a source of dread: a young girl is terrorized by the letters of the alphabet as she sleeps. The serial killer in “Twin Peaks” leaves lettered scraps of paper under the nails of his victims.
“When you do something that works, you have a happiness.” “It’s such a sadness that you think you’ve seen a film on your fucking telephone.”
It is not uncommon for artists to believe that their art should speak for itself. But Lynch’s aphasia is born of a protectiveness that verges on superstition. Words for him are not just reductive; they are anathema to his view of art as fundamentally enigmatic. He says often that his films should leave “room to dream.” To decode a film, to proffer interpretations, to divulge the source of an idea—all these simply mean less room and fewer possible dreams. Called upon to describe his films, Lynch typically gives the most minimal one-liners: “Mulholland Drive” is “a love story in the city of dreams”; “Inland Empire” is the story of “a woman in trouble.” From as far back as “Eraserhead,” he was careful to seed his burgeoning legend with mysteries: he has never revealed what he used to create the movie’s mutant baby (the most popular rumor holds that it was a calf fetus). He has also claimed that “Eraserhead” came together in his head when he chanced upon a sentence in the Bible, while pointedly refusing to specify which one.
Lynch has not exactly been mute on the subject of his art and creative process. He has repeatedly advanced an almost mystical notion of ideas having a life of their own, independent of the artist and waiting to be plucked from the ether. Sometimes he likens himself to a radio, tuning in inspiration on odd frequencies. More often he compares ideas to fish, swimming in an ocean of possibilities. The fullest illustration of these concepts can be found in his 2006 book “Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity,” which combines scattered autobiographical anecdotes, creativity-boosting tips, and quotes from the Bhagavad Gita and the Upanishads. Somewhere between self-help propaganda and Lynch’s own teen-age Bible, the realist painter Robert Henri’s “The Art Spirit,” the book consists of many extremely short chapters in which Lynch typically describes a problem he has faced—anger, stress, writer’s block—and in every case recommends meditation as a solution. There are a few resonant bits of wisdom (“There’s a safety in thinking in a diner”) and some instances of accidental poetry (“every single thing that is a thing”), but mostly the writing is robotically declarative (“I love the French”, “I love dream logic”) and so repetitive that it all but induces a trance-like stupor. Reading “Catching the Big Fish,” you’re reminded that Pauline Kael once called Lynch a genius naïf, and that David Foster Wallace, reporting from the set of “Lost Highway,” noted, “It’s hard to tell if he’s a genius or an idiot.” All of which is in line with the Lynch persona as we have come to know it: the primitive artist of our most modern art.
Lynch’s hard stand against interpretation has, of course, done little to dissuade his legion interpreters. Despite (or, perhaps, because of) his own reticence, a cottage industry of Lynch studies has proliferated, from the casual yet obsessive efforts of cultists to the more strenuous heavy lifting of scholars. Rich in contradiction and mysterious in its effects, with a plot that vividly and literally dramatizes such Freudian concepts as the primal scene and the Oedipus complex, “Blue Velvet,” when it arrived in 1986, opened the floodgates of academic analysis. The first book-length studies of Lynch emerged in the early nineties, and dozens more have surfaced since. (Last week, Lynch announced that he’s writing a memoir, titled “Life and Work,” which he promises will counter all the “bullshit out there about me.”) Any number of Lynchian tics and tropes have been pored over for clues, from the prevalence of disability and prosthetic limbs in his films to his evident fondness for midcentury design. Conferences have been convened and countless papers published, applying myriad analytical prisms, from quantum physics to psychoanalytic theory. (The first time I met Lynch, in 2001, I gave him a copy of Slavoj Žižek’s Lacanian monograph “The Art of the Ridiculous Sublime: On David Lynch’s Lost Highway”—probably to his great horror.)
And yet, the more theories there are, and the better they fit, the more stubbornly elusive Lynch can seem. Writing about David Lynch, it can be hard not to hear his voice in your head, protesting the violence being done to his work. “As soon as you put things in words, no one ever sees the film the same way,” he once told me. “And that’s what I hate, you know. Talking—it’s real dangerous.” Not for nothing does “Mulholland Drive,” the Lynch movie that has invited the most fervent flurry of explication, end with a word of caution: “Silencio.”