Art of surprise: inside the weird world of David Lynch
A new documentary exploring the elusive Twin Peaks director's love of painting reveals how a desire to see his artworks move inspired Lynch to make some of Hollywood's most iconic films
In the opening scenes of David Lynch: The Art Life, the legendary director sits silently in a jumbled studio, dabbing paint on a canvas. He's spare, white-haired, absent mindedly smoking, and one can imagine intolerant reviewers throwing their eyes angrily to heaven and assuming that he's taken up painting as a poseur's hobby.
On the contrary: for Lynch, visual art always came first. It's been the one creative constant in his life, the source from which all his other achievements sprung. Jon Nguyen's documentary explores this underlying interest, and is bolstered by some candid interviews with the notoriously elusive Lynch.
He's been called the most important American director of the late 20th century, his 2001 film Mulholland Drive was voted best film of the 21st century in a BBC Culture poll, and his 1990s show Twin Peaks has been credited with kick-starting TV drama's golden age.
But the most remarkable thing is that such an esoteric and surreal artist as Lynch has managed to make such an impact in mainstream entertainment. I suspect that commercial success never interested him very much, and his loyalty to deep, recurring personal themes has been unwavering. Sometimes his films have got lost in tricksy plots and dream sequences, but at his best, he's an utterly original film-maker.
He's also a quintessentially American one: most of his major films explore the fragile optimism of his 1950s childhood, and the darkness and violence that lurk beneath even the most pristine suburban landscape.
He once described his early life as "tree-lined streets, picket fences, green grass, cherry trees. But on the cherry tree there's this pitch oozing out, and millions of red ants crawling all over it. I discovered that if one looks a little closer at this beautiful world, there are always red ants underneath."
Though you might not expect it of the creator of Eraserhead and Blue Velvet, his childhood was an idyllic one. Born in Missoula, Montana on January 20, 1946, David was the eldest child of Donald Lynch, a research scientist, and Edwina 'Sunny' Lynch, an English tutor.
His father's work took him across the American Midwest, and the family moved from frequently during David's childhood. But he reacted well to change, and in The Art Life he describes growing up in a "a super happy household" where he "had tremendous freedom, nobody was overbearing, there was just this foundation of love, and off we went".
This was the heyday of American suburban life, and Lynch and his younger brother and sister grew up in a society charged with world-beating optimism. But there was dangers in the shadows, and in The Art Life, Lynch recalls an unsettling incident. He was playing in the street when a naked woman emerged from the nearby woods, bewildered, weeping.
"I wanted to do something for her," he says, "but I was little, and I didn't know what to do." Was this, one wonders, the beginning of his preoccupation with the dark underbelly of American suburbia?
From an early age he'd drawn and painted, and though he "hated school, and studying", as a teenager he became increasingly dedicated to his art. He wanted to be a painter, and live what he described as "the art life".
"I had this idea," he explains, "that you drink coffee, you smoke cigarettes and you paint, and that's it. Maybe girls come into it a little bit, but basically it's the incredible happiness of working and living that life." Real life, however, would soon get in the way.
Lynch moved to Philadelphia in 1966 and enrolled at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. There he met Peggy Reavey, a fellow student: they were married in 1967, and a year later a baby girl was born. At 23, Lynch was stuck in a city he says would "suck your happiness away and fill you with sadness and fear".
Philadelphia was experiencing a crime wave, and they lived in a large house in a poor, blighted neighbourhood. "We were robbed twice, had windows shot out and a car stolen", he recalled, "there was violence and hate and filth. But the biggest influence in my whole life was that city."
It was there, after wishing he could see his paintings move, that Lynch began experimenting with film-making. His earliest efforts were very arty: in the short animation Six Men Getting Sick, a group of Francis Bacon-like figures regurgitated to the sound of a siren; in The Alphabet, a distraught woman chants letters before bleeding all over her bed sheets. Competing strains of horror and whimsy were present from the start: they would find fuller expression in Eraserhead.
In 1971, Lynch and his family moved to Los Angeles, where he began studying film-making at the AFI Conservatory. He abandoned several film projects before settling on Eraserhead, a shocking and boldly original film inspired by his own experiences. Jack Nance played Henry Spencer, a nervy young man with upstanding hair who finds out he's the father of a very strange baby.
It looks like an alien, will not eat and howls constantly, and when Henry tries to help it, he accidentally kills it, and is haunted by visions of the vengeful child. Filmed in black and white to a soundtrack of industrial groans and thuds, it was not easy viewing.
Lynch was a fan of Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis, and its influence on Eraserhead is obvious, but the director was also inspired by his time in Philadelphia, and the childhood complications experienced by his daughter, Jennifer. When it was released in 1977, most critics hated it, and it and Lynch might have been forgotten altogether had Eraserhead not enjoyed a second life on America's midnight movie underground circuit.
Gradually, Eraserhead developed a cult following. Stanley Kubrick praised it to the skies, and when Mel Brooks saw it, he decided to hire Lynch to direct his production company's next project.
Though by no means a typical Lynch film, The Elephant Man (1980) did continue the theme of body horror, and starred the late John Hurt as John Merrick, a severely deformed Victorian man who's exhibited in freak shows. Lynch directed it relatively conventionally, which perhaps explained the fact that it earned him his first Oscar nomination. Suddenly, he was in demand.
George Lucas asked him to direct Return of the Jedi, but he turned him down, and instead settled on another sci-fi project, a decision he would later regret. Based on the Frank Herbert sci-fi novel, Dune (1984) was a famous flop. Lynch didn't have control of the final cut, and felt betrayed, but almost immediately, he bounced back.
Shocking, violent, dark and funny, Blue Velvet (see panel) was the most original mainstream film of 1986, and is considered by some to be his masterpiece.
There was more to come, of course. In 1990 he branched out unexpectedly into television, mashing up the tired tropes of soap operas and crime shows to create Twin Peaks, a murder mystery with positively psychedelic flourishes. It changed TV drama forever, and Lynch and his collaborator Mark Frost have recently revived the show.
Wild at Heart (1990) won him the Palme d'Or, and while his surreal 1997 crime drama Lost Highway divided the critics, the 2001 neo-noir mystery Mulholland Drive has been acclaimed as a work of genius.
Cinema, though, has failed to retain his interest. He's released a couple of experimental albums, makes strange TV shows (a sitcom about a family of rabbits, anyone?), has written books, meditates - and of course he paints.
For Lynch is a real artist, a bold iconoclast who somehow found his way into film-making. It's a pity it doesn't happen more often.
BEST OF LYNCH
David Lynch’s obsession with the dark underbelly of small American towns is best expressed in Blue Velvet. It’s probably his best film, and many legends have grown up around its production. Isabella Rossellini had only starred in Lancôme ads before Lynch cast her as the unfortunate Dorothy, and wild man Dennis Hopper was then considered unemployable. The pivotal role of deranged killer Frank Booth had already been offered to Robert Loggia and Willem Dafoe, but they’d been put off by the character’s unpleasantness. But Hopper hounded Lynch, telling him “I’ve got to play Frank — I am Frank!”, and he makes a worryingly convincing lunatic. Kyle MacLachlan stars as a wide-eyed young man who enters a dark world of sexual sadism when he finds a severed human ear on a neat suburban lawn.