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David Lynch, Hiding in Plain Sight

April 30, 2014 | by

The filmmaker comes to BAM.

David_Lynch_-microphone_-10Aug2007

Lynch in 2007. Photo: Thiaggo Piccoli, via Wikimedia Commons

What, in retrospect, did we hope to hear from David Lynch last night? In “a rare public appearance,” the filmmaker appeared in conversation with Paul Holdengräber at BAM, to a sold-out crowd. The people were there. Lynch was there. And so … now what?

It wasn’t as if we expected to walk out with David Lynch decoder rings, finally capable, having listened to him, of educing his films’ meaning. Much of their joy derives from their refusal to cohere. Nor could we reasonably hope to reconcile the work with the man—the gap between the Missoula-born Eagle Scout and the psychosexual Grand Guignol of, say, Blue Velvet has always been pretty difficult to bridge. That’s all part of the Lynch magic, and you can hardly expect a guy to declaim upon the essence of his magic.

So why were we there, then? Did we simply want to see him bodily, to confirm the corporeal existence of a man whose work sometimes seems—extraterrestrial? Sure. But we also presumed we would learn something, anything, about him. Something new, something that qualified as insight: something that might make the whole Lynchian gestalt that much less opaque.

Such was not the case.

As David Foster Wallace wrote in 1995, “Lynch’s movies are about images and stories in his head that he wants to see made external and complexly real.” Lynch has expanded the grammar of film as much as any director of his era; he has as singular and penetrating a vision of American life as any living artist—and he had almost nothing to say about his work, especially not about his movies. He wasn’t going to talk shop. He wasn’t, with the exception of a bit about Eraserhead’s Lady in the Radiator, going to talk about the stories in his head. Sometimes it seemed he wasn’t going to talk, period.

“One time I heard it,” he said of Bobby Vinton’s cover of “Blue Velvet”—“and images started coming from this song…”

Aha! What images?

David Lynch didn’t say what images.

Holdengräber tried to draw him out. It was just the two of them onstage, under the hot lights—two chairs, a small table, an area rug, and an awed hush. In his gentle Continental croon, Holdengräber read aloud a few florid quotations and asked Lynch to react.

Lynch didn’t care much for reaction. The quotations were beautiful, he acknowledged. Many things last night would be described as beautiful.

On a big screen behind the men, an iconic image from Blue Velvet appeared: a detached, decaying ear half buried in a suburban lawn. And Holdengräber ventured, coyly—he might ask, why this ear …

“You’d have to see the film,” Lynch said.

This got a big laugh. Silly Holdengräber, the audience seemed to say, with his insistence on interpretation, his outmoded desire to know more! Still, maybe he could goad Lynch into saying something about his thoughts, his inspirations—the intro to Eraserhead crept onto the big screen, and Holdengräber recited another beautiful quotation about the dreamlike nature of the cinema…

“It’s done,” Lynch said conclusively of Eraserhead. “Then it goes out into the world, and it is what it is.”

Now the people broke into boisterous applause. Absolutely! It is what it is! What a genius! Who could deign to take issue with such self-evident, tautological truth?

Holdengräber was a bright and quick-witted interlocutor—but his measured, psychoanalytical approach was humorously at odds with Lynch’s gee-willikers shtick. He displayed a series of paintings on the big screen—Edward Hopper, Francis Bacon—and treated them like Rorschach blots. What did Lynch see in them? How did they make him feel? Lynch didn’t even have to answer, really; he could proffer an all-American gee-whiz shrug and trot out those sincere adjectives. (“Beautiful … fantastic …”) He never had to put his art on the line.

And thus we heard that David Lynch loves Jimi Hendrix (“He may be the best guitar player”); we heard that David Lynch loves Kanye West (“I love ‘Blood on the Leaves’ … so minimal, so powerful, but at the same time so beautiful”); we heard that David Lynch loves the paintings of Francis Bacon and Edward Hopper; we heard that David Lynch loves sugar (“granular happiness”); we heard that David Lynch loves factories, or rather, he loves what factories are made of: “I love smoke. I love fire. I love metal. I love glass. I love plaster. I love bricks.”

David Lynch loves, and he believes. He would have you think that this is all he does—he’s just folks! He believes in coffee. He believes in the harmonics of ideas. He believes, of course, in transcendental meditation, in beams of white light from the Buddha’s eyes, in a reservoir of unlimited human potential.

An image flashed onto the big screen: the sun-drenched exterior of Bob’s Big Boy, in Burbank. Something thawed in Lynch. He began to talk. He went to Bob’s Big Boy every day for seven years, he said; he’d order a chocolate milkshake and lots of coffee. He’d show up at two-thirty in the afternoon, hoping the shakes wouldn’t be runny since the machine had had time to cool down after the lunch rush. Plus, a diner, as he astutely noted, is a terrific place to lose yourself. You could free-fall into one dark mental crevasse after another, could do some serious psycho-spelunking—but with the people, the food, and the warm incandescent light, you’d always know how to recover yourself.

At last! Lynch was telling a story—was opening up—we could picture him arriving daily as the crowd thinned; installing himself, maybe, in the same booth every time, in wordless enactment of some Lynchian ritual; wondering, as some late-model soda jerk got to work on his order, Will today be a perfect milkshake day? In three years, he only got three perfect shakes, he said. In fact, so lacking was quality control that he one day took it upon himself to go out back behind the restaurant, searching for the box of milkshake mix—what was in that stuff, anyway?—dumpster-diving behind his favorite haunt, searching, bent on solving the mystery.

Why did he want to know?

What sorts of images occurred to him in the diner?

He might have gone on, but Holdengräber had no further questions on the subject. And with that, any hopes of “real talk”—of getting to kinda know the guy—were dashed.

* * *

It’s perfectly defensible for an artist to claim that his work is self-contained, or that he’s no more attuned to its mystery than his audience is. No fan of Lynch’s would disagree with his assertion that “some people like to have a meaning, and some people don’t care, because it allows you to dream.” But there are gradations to this position. An artist can discuss his vision, his ideas, without filing a final verdict on what his work means. He can offer a window to his work without declaring it the window.

Lynch took a hard line. No way in hell would an aspirant filmmaker leave that auditorium with a scrap of technique from the master’s table; no way would a casual fan find a new way of seeing. Again, there’s nothing wrong with such limits. But one wonders why a man who so disdains explanation would consent to appear in conversation—before thousands of spectators. There were eager apostles in every one of the 2,090 plush seats in the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House (“beautiful theater…”) just waiting to hear … something.

But Lynch knew his audience—he knew that most any something would suffice. As Flavorwire notes in its fawning review of the night, Lynch boasts “a genial folksiness that would make the average grasping politician jealous. When Lynch says ‘guys,’ ‘girls,’ and ‘folks,’ he means it, and doesn’t sound coached to death.” More than an artist, Lynch was a politician last night, and this was a campaign stop—he was burnishing his reputation as a savant, as David Lynch, the willfully eccentric auteur-entrepreneur. The crowd at BAM was largely of that new, younger generation who have come to Twin Peaks by way of Netflix, who have not been aware of Lynch long enough to have seen one of his movies in theatrical release. He knew we were already believers; where once he was Hollywood’s enfant terrible, he has assumed, somewhat uneasily, the role of éminence grise. He didn’t have to talk seriously about his art. He just had to be kind of faintly … you know … Lynchian. He had to build his brand.

Lynch hasn’t made a movie since Inland Empire, which appeared in 2006; rumor has it he’s working on one now, but in the intervening years, he’s found the time to record two albums of electronic music, to open a nightclub in Paris, to market his own line of organic coffee—and you can pick up a pair of Twin Peaks Nike Dunks, too. For a while he recorded himself reading the weather for Los Angeles every day. Granted, he’s always been one to keep many irons in many fires, and his eclecticism is hardly something to be shunned. But those extracurricular interests were always pursued alongside, rather than instead of, his work as a feature-film director; this is the longest he’s ever gone without a major release. And yet he’s already captured the youth vote. Brooklyn Vegan called the night a “freewheeling gabfest”—as if it hadn’t been filled with ponderous silences.

Is it too cynical to declare that all this is more calculated than it seems—and less artful? Lynch may be able to utter a believable “shucks!”, but he’s much too canny in his self-presentation to be a true eccentric. In other words: he may well be a weirdo, but he knows exactly what he’s doing. The Lynch brand sometimes seems to extend straight to his shock of white hair—coifed and/or pompadoured specifically so that we of the media might call it a shock, because that’s what our eccentrics must have: shocks of white hair.

Why is such a brilliant filmmaker so insistently branding himself? It undermines the singular strength of his movies—the movies he has no interest in talking about, but plenty of interest in kind of talking about.

“It’s treacherous talking with you,” Holdengräber said at one point. Lynch responded with surprising candor. “The words, they’re not really necessary,” he told the crowd—all two thousand of us—who had paid at least twenty-five dollars to hear him speak.

24 COMMENTS

19 Comments

  1. amandachen | April 30, 2014 at 7:36 pm

    “Why did he want know?”

    Why he want know?
    Why want know?
    Why? Why?

  2. Dan Piepenbring | April 30, 2014 at 7:44 pm

    Terrific questions, all of them.

    I’ve fixed the typo.

  3. FredR | April 30, 2014 at 7:51 pm

    ‘As David Foster Wallace wrote in 1995, “Lynch’s movies are about images and stories in his head that he wants to see made external and complexly real.”’

    Boy that’s a vacuous quotation.

  4. Steven Scott | April 30, 2014 at 8:16 pm

    The interview project was an interesting digression along the Lynchian trail. DFW was more or less left along the periphery during his stint with DL too, much like it seems last night’s audience was.

    As far as understanding the indignant Lynchian brand-promotion of vacuity goes, it’s sort of like reading Joyce: unless you’re a Dubliner (or living in Lynch’s brain), the take-away is rewarding, but in a decidedly masochistic way. Anyway, a nice piece, Mr. Piepenbring.

  5. Skotos khrodos | April 30, 2014 at 9:45 pm

    Mr. Pipenbring, I can understand that you might be capable of spending a whole evening in the presence of an artist without learning anything, the question I have is why you would embarrass yourself not only by publishing the fact, but doing so with such a cheap after-party personality appraisal?

  6. Dan Piepenbring | April 30, 2014 at 9:59 pm

    I dunno, Skotos—I guess I just like having a good time!

  7. alley freeway | April 30, 2014 at 10:59 pm

    I doubt there is a bigger fan than me, but I stayed away from this having heard almost every Lynch interview and talk given in the past ten years. I seriously doubt there is anything more to learn from the person himself after reading his work on creativity or other interviews.

    There was definitely terrain he could have covered. I’d like to have learned more about Industrial Symphony which was actually at BAM, or his appearance on Louis C.K.

    This probably could have been prepped for better, or at all. He’s still a great artist.

    Thanks for your honest take…

  8. Matt | May 1, 2014 at 4:29 am

    Awful and pretentious. The Paris Review is such a great publication but what, in retrospect, did I hope to read in this article? Uh something good I imagine.

    ‘Such was not the case.’

    I get douche chills from reading this. After reading the Paris review for 10 years this is the first article I can say, in retrospect, that is truly awful. This article may, in retrospect, be responsible for destroying the entire journal.

  9. Tony T | May 1, 2014 at 9:51 am

    well, I like this very much . . glad I couldn’t make it to the real thing . . and quickly turned around!

  10. Jacques Rigaut | May 1, 2014 at 11:57 am

    “Why is such a brilliant filmmaker so insistently branding himself? It undermines the singular strength of his movies….”

    How, exactly?

  11. Walter | May 1, 2014 at 2:08 pm

    He don’t have to explain nothing to u bro ! Cool it !

  12. Sam | May 1, 2014 at 2:20 pm

    This reads like a bitter Yelp review.

  13. Jim Meritan | May 1, 2014 at 3:08 pm

    I saw Dune, what a mess. Sounds like this was Dune 2 LIVE! Enough non-sense, I enjoyed your honest reaction to this prolific film-maker. I think I’ll stick to his films and stay away from electro records, fancy footwear and LIVE talking.

    Fanboys gonna hate, but how many of em threw down bills to see this guy? Best stick to youtube, ITS FREE!

  14. T | May 1, 2014 at 3:33 pm

    Thank you, Mr. Piepenbring. Yeah, this happens quite a bit, sometimes, often it’s the fault of the interviewer. I saw Lynch’s occasional cowriter, Barry Gifford (Wild at Heart, Lost Highway) in an interview last year and the interviewer was asking broad questions like, “What’s your process?” “What’s it mean?” and after getting tired of making the interviewer look green and goofy, Gifford said, “You know what. How ’bout I just read some stories for the rest of the time we have” which I thought was a good, and fairly polite/diplomatic approach. An interviewer shouldn’t read quotes, show pictures, and say “Go!” However much the interviewer read/researched it comes off as he or she may not have. The interviewer (I’ve done numerous author and other artist interviews) needs to, at times, briefly share what they (or possibly notable people) have found or believe in what they’ve experienced in the artist’s work and ask more of what they were attempting to reveal and explore in the . . .human condition/situations in life/phenomena, etc. however cheesy those feel, ask it sincerely. And it always helps with first recognizing and stating that sure, everyone’s reaction to art is subjective but what were you trying and moreover what did you discover in creating this piece? Do you see something different in it now? Anyway, good article. Needed to be said for your sentiments are felt by many but most don’t have the backbone to address it or are too young and love the mysterious as well as are intimidated by the fact the successful story does REQUIRE “meaning,” so to speak, really, it requires revelation of the human condition.

  15. Alan Warner | May 1, 2014 at 5:32 pm

    “I get douche chills from reading this.”

    Yes. Pips, you’re an ass. Lynch doesn’t make films because the only money available is for Spiderman 24–which I’m sure you love. Seriously Pips, a dick so I’ll call you Dick Pips. Are you old enough to Google…? OK, so–type David Lynch and then you can read many interviews where he talks about his films in great detail AND all the movies he’d like to make BUT has no money to make. Investors want Spiderman 24–which you’ll adore. You do know he made INLAND EMPIRE pretty much on his own dime, filming with friends? To accuse him of being a flaneur, of being pretentious and lazy? Dick Pips! He’s almost 70! You’re (emotionally) 7. Yeah, Lynch is a phony and your the real deal. Dick Pips.

  16. Clara | May 1, 2014 at 8:20 pm

    Why do you want a bunch of tacked-on meaning to his films? I really don’t get that…
    Perhaps for you the joy in watching a Lynch film is so that you can walk away with a bunch of observations that make you feel smart?
    As for myself, and most people I know, the joy in watching a Lynch film as unique among your average dramas, is that his abstractions put you “in the zone” (for lack of a better term).
    Personally, if Lynch spilled all the stories behind all strange details of his films, it would ruin the experience of watching them. The tagged-on associations would distract from the experience.
    But I suppose some people like to have a lot of chatter going on in their heads at all times.

  17. Dan Denby | May 2, 2014 at 9:58 am

    David Lynch is soooo wicked cool! But yeah, comes across as a real enimgatic guy. Kind of like his weird movies. Oh well! Well I love the Brooklyn Academy of Music anyway. Good excuse to go into Brooklyn. You know, I write for the New Yorker, and I don’t often get to travel into such exotic places. Dave Lynch, Dave Danby kinda sound the same don’t they? I wish he was my brother or my dad

  18. Draeger | May 2, 2014 at 10:48 am

    “What’s the frequency, Kenneth?”

  19. Jon | May 2, 2014 at 11:34 am

    “This article may, in retrospect, be responsible for destroying the entire journal.”

    good lord people, calm down

5 Pingbacks

  1. […] via Paris Review ‘David Lynch, Hiding in Plain Sight’ by Dan Piepenbring. […]

  2. […] consciousness and the film itself. It’s showing, not telling. So, snarky writer for the Paris Review–stop getting your panties in a twist because David Lynch won’t tell you what his films […]

  3. […] He had to build his brand.” After attending David Lynch’s appearance at BAMcinématek, Dan Piepenbring still loves the movies (and the photos and the music and the coffee), but has had enough of the man’s wide-eyed gnomic […]

  4. […] Lynch, whose suspiciously mercantile interests I’ve complained about before, is now designing women’s luxury activewear. “The special collection features ‘limited […]

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