It’s been almost a decade since David Lynch made a movie, and yet he’s possibly more well-known than ever. It’s probable that he’s well known for his quirky public persona these days as for the movies he’s directed – between his appearances on shows like Louie and the ubiquitous YouTube clips of his stuffing panties in his mouth, telling the story of the time he was offered the chance to direct Return of the Jedi, and declaring product placement in movies “total fucking bullshit,” Lynch, like Werner Herzog, is a serious auteur who has somehow also become an endlessly meme-able internet celebrity.
And while the influence of his work can be felt in both atmospheric dramas like True Detective and Hannibal and absurdist comedy (much of Adult Swim’s lineup owes a debt to Lynch), nobody can seem to agree on the exact nature of that influence. “Lynchian” has become a catch-all term for movies or shows (or real life events) that are weird, weirdly funny or difficult to wrap one’s head around, diluting the very specific and persona weirdness that David Lynch brought to his films. In the introduction to his book David Lynch: The Man from Another Place (Amazon, Powell’s) Dennis Lim cites David Foster Wallace’s attempt at an academic definition of the term in his 1996 essay on the director: “[…] a particular kind of irony where the very macabre and the very mundane combine in such a way as to reveal the former’s perpetual containment within the latter” (in the essay, Wallace immediately adds that “Lynchian is one of those Porter Stewart-type words that ultimately definable only ostensibly – i.e., we know it when we see it”). Lim’s book is refreshing because it gets beyond David Lynch as a concept or a brand, instead opting to explore Lynch both as a one-of-a-kind artist and as a guy who has repeatedly found success and weathered failure in more than four decades as a filmmaker.
Lim, the director of programming at the Film Society of Lincoln Center (and, previously, the film editor at the Village Voice), identifies three important turning points in Lynch’s life that led the Eagle Scout from Missoula, Montana (the simple biography that Lynch has long used for himself) to become an iconic filmmaker and household name. These are his introduction to his friend Toby Keeler’s father Bushnell, a professional painter, in 1961; his time spent at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in 1967, where Philadelphia’s urban squalor inspires what Lynch called his “first original thought,” eventually leading to his first moving painting, Six Men Getting Sick; and his first exposure, in 1973, to Transcendental Meditation, which Lynch still practices to this day, eventually leading to his founding the David Lynch Foundation for Consciousness-Based Education and World Peace, which he’s devoted much of his time to in the past decade. Curiously, Lim identifies several possible fourth turning points, including the critical and commercial failure of Dune, the cancellation of Twin Peaks, or some earlier, unknown formative experience in the director’s childhood. Oddly, he never resolves that question, or returns to what he seems to be laying out as his structural approach to considering Lynch’s life and body of work.
The rest of the book, rather, is a chronological exploration of Lynch that is equal parts biography and critical analysis. Lim moves freely between Lynch’s personal life in relation to how it influenced his work and the films in the context of when they were made and how they fit into Lynch’s larger body of work. For fans of the director, a lot of the biographical and behind-the-scenes details included are well known, but it’s still fascinating thanks to Lee’s insight into the movies and the level of detail he gets into regarding their creation. For instance, it’s well known that Mulholland Drive was originally a TV pilot that ABC passed on before European investors offered Lynch the opportunity to expand it into a feature film. However, I’ve never read as detailed an account of what exactly happened there, as the network’s initial enthusiasm gradually gave way to second thoughts, or of what a Mulholland Drive series might have looked like.
A running theme in the book is that Lynch’s works are almost as often shaped by failure and practical and economic restrictions as they are through opportunity; while there’s only one David Lynch, much of Lim’s book should serve as inspiration for any aspiring filmmaker. I’ve always been particularly inspired by the story of Eraserhead’s making, and I was glad that Lim covered it in great detail. It’s well known that the movie was shot in fragments over the course of five years as Lynch was able to scramble together a little bit of money at a time, including money from a paper route that he kept for much of the shoot. But Lim’s piece is the first I’ve read that gets into a question that has always fascinated me – how, as an unknown with no features to his credit, did Lynch inspire the loyalty necessary to finish the film from a cast and crew working for almost no money on what must have sounded like a completely insane idea? Anyone who has worked on any kind of low-budget film shoot knows how crucial it is for the filmmaker to earn his collaborators’ trust, and I appreciated that Lim rightly identified that Lynch’s gift for inspiring his cast and crew and creating a working environment that people want to be a part of is as important a factor in his success as his one-of-a-kind imagination.
In fact, while Lim’s critical analysis of the movies is quite insightful, I most appreciated the equal space he gives to Lynch’s success at navigating a career in Hollywood, working on both studio and independent movies, while maintaining his distinct authorial voice. The Lynch brand obscures the fact that his movies don’t just materialize fully formed from his subconscious – it’s as much a job for him as it is for any director, and reading about how he navigated his career in the aftermath of one of the most notorious box office bombs, or through his overexposure in the Twin Peaks era and the inevitable backlash, are invaluable lessons for anyone who wants to make a living at making movies. And even before Lynch’s switch to digital video with his last movie, Inland Empire, Lim accurately traces how, since 1997’s Lost Highway, both the content of Lynch’s movies and the way he marketed them and his own brand anticipated cinema’s shift to digital and the increasingly non-linear ways we absorb media.
In writing about Lynch’s shift to his focus on promoting Transcendental Meditation, you can almost see Lim rolling his eyes in a way that seems a bit excessive; true, the New Age-y aspects of TM invite skepticism, but it’s not like the organization is a Scientology-esque malevolent cult, and Lynch clearly believes in its positive effects, so it seems unnecessarily judgmental. I’ll chalk it up to Lim’s frustrated desire to see Lynch behind the camera again, something I’ve heard from other fans (I know at least one who gets quite angry about Lynch’s merchandising and YouTube antics, which he says are “beneath him”). The book was written after the return of Twin Peaks was announced but before it was briefly off, then on, again, and none of us know how Lynch’s return to shooting on film and serialized storytelling will play out. I assume that Lim, who has written about and interviewed Lynch over the years, will return to his subject in some form, and I’m looking forward to it.