Me and David Lynch
Yesterday was the 65th birthday of David Lynch, a director and artist whose influence on my own life is hard to exaggerate. There was a time, growing up, when I wanted to be David Lynch. And while my own writing has taken me in a markedly different direction, I sometimes regret the fact that I haven’t tried harder to live up to Lynch’s standards. He’s as singular an artist as they come, but his career still stands as as a challenge and inspiration for those of us who insist, despite his example, on moving in less peculiar circles.
The film at the center of Lynch’s work, and of my own imagination, is Blue Velvet, which I think is simply the greatest of all American movies—”as American as Casablanca,” as David Thomson says. I could write an essay or more on any aspect of Blue Velvet’s production—the performances, the cinematography, the sound, the incredible score by Angelo Badalamenti—but for the moment, I’m going to focus on just one element: the story. Because, strange to say, as far out as Blue Velvet is in other respects, on a narrative level, it’s Lynch’s most conventional movie, which has a great deal to do with its success.
Strip away the hallucinatory flourishes, and Blue Velvet is basically a thriller, the most ravishing of Technicolor noirs. It’s really the only film in which Lynch has displayed any interest in the actual creation of suspense—rather than in its forms alone—and you can sense his innocent delight in playing the audience like a piano. (The two major scenes in Dorothy Valens’s apartment, the first near the beginning, the second at the end, are still the most dazzling sequences of their kind I’ve ever seen.) And the fact that Lynch’s ultimate dreamscape is built on a solid foundation of genre is a lesson to artists everywhere. The result is a film that evokes every emotion that we can feel at the movies: amusement, excitement, dread, horror, sentimentality, and, finally, a kind of transcendent joy.
That same range of emotion is also the hallmark of Lynch’s second great achievement: Twin Peaks. When the show premiered on April 8, 1990, I wasn’t even ten years old, but, thanks mostly to my parents, I watched it anyway. Ever since, it has occupied a curiously prominent place in my subconscious. And the strangest thing is that my conception of the show encompasses the pilot, the finale, perhaps five or six other episodes, and the soundtrack, especially the songs sung by Julee Cruise. The rest I can take or leave. But what remains is a kind of invisible force that has left me looking forever for strangeness in small towns and poetry in a cup of coffee. In Twin Peaks, as in all of Lynch’s best work, beauty, humor, and horror live side by side, and they’re often all aspects of the same thing.
This conviction, which sometimes comes off as mysterious even to Lynch himself, is what sets him apart from all other American directors. On a superficial level, the style of Twin Peaks or Blue Velvet is staggeringly easy to imitate, or parody, and Lynch has certainly had his share of followers. Few, if any, have managed to share his fundamental certainty that the strangeness and romance of life are inseparable. If his movies are weird, that’s because their urgent sense of beauty can be expressed in no other way. That’s why his example is so humbling, especially for a writer, like me, who finds it hard to move beyond reason, while Lynch, the great naif and Eagle Scout, is off reinventing movies.
Judging from his most recent work, or the lack thereof, David Lynch is no longer especially interested in being a movie director in any conventional sense. Which is wonderful for him, but it’s also our loss, and a permanent one. For an eyeblink, Lynch was at the center of our culture—on October 1, 1990, he was on the cover of Time magazine. Compared to that, how can the last twenty years feel like anything but a retreat?