David Lynch, Hiding in Plain Sight



The filmmaker comes to BAM.


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.