The David Lynch Mystery

After nearly four decades of filmmaking, American director David Lynch, who created such films as 'Blue Velvet,' 'Wild at Heart,' 'Mulholland Drive' and 'Inland Empire,' is still exhilarated by his multifarious art form.

Uri Klein
Uri Klein
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Uri Klein
Uri Klein

Director David Lynch, 61, who is currently visiting Israel, might have preferred to discuss the power of Transcendental Meditation, how it captured his heart and soul, and the worldwide peace that he strives to achieve through it. But his eyes also sparkle when he talks about cinema - he still appears enchanted by the mysteries concealed within his art form.

Lynch did not want to be a film director.

"I wanted to paint," he says. "I arrived at filmmaking by way of painting. One day, while living in Philadelphia and studying at the Academy of Fine Arts, I sat in the small booth and painted a picture of a garden at night. It was a black and green painting in which the black emerged from the green and suddenly the wind came out of the painting and the green started to move. I asked myself, 'what is this?' and answered myself, 'it's a moving picture.'"

In response to that experience, an event that sounds like one which could feature in any of his films, he began to experiment with the connection between painting and movement and to fall in love with filmmaking, he says.

His first short films earned him a study grant awarded by the American Film Institute to independent filmmakers. Lynch credits the Institute's Czechoslovakian film teacher Frank Daniel, whom he considers one of the finest film teachers of all time, with revealing the secrets of filmmaking to him. A class in which Daniel analyzed the use of sound in "A Place in the Sun" is emblazoned in Lynch's memory. The film, directed by George Stevens in 1951, is one of the most highly esteemed examples of classic Hollywood filmmaking. Despite these fond memories, Lynch says he belongs to the school that advocates learning by doing.

Lynch began to make films in the late 1960s and completed his first film, "Eraserhead," which he began directing while still a student, in 1977. It was a significant decade in the history of American filmmaking. Classic Hollywood took a backseat to new American films by Robert Altman, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola, and Brian De Palma, and those directors also faded into the background when directors like Steven Spielberg and George Lucas entered the arena. But Lynch maintains he was unaware of these permutations and worked neither among nor against these forces.

"We each have our own voice and we do our own thing. Only after time, in which you distance yourself from what you have produced, do you understand where you were positioned in a certain historical moment," he says.

"I was never an avid film buff," he adds. "I knew about the existence of the French New Wave and I loved Fellini and Bergman, but don't forget that before I started making films, I wanted to be a painter."

Do you consider yourself a painter who makes films?

"No, because we humans can do so many things. I am a film director and a painter. Filmmaking confronts the artist with so many different forms of artistic expression - I was completely swept away by it."

Lynch's films are typically divided into the highly experimental category, which includes "Eraserhead" and his most recent feature film, "Inland Empire," and the more traditional category, which includes films like "Elephant Man" and "The Straight Story." Lynch neither agrees with this dissection nor accepts the term "experimental." He maintains it is more correct to describe some of his films as more abstract than others.

"All the films I made were based on ideas, and the minute you get an idea for a film you know what to do with it. The idea is everything, everything," he says. "Everything we do is based on an idea. And we fall in love with the idea. As soon as I heard the pair of words 'elephant man,' I knew it was a film that I wanted to make and I also knew how I wanted to make it. Every film has a concrete foundation but some films have more abstractions than others. Filmmaking is a language that can say the concrete and also the abstract - sometimes even at once. It's a combination which is very hard to describe in words, which only cinema is capable of producing.

"I object to the word 'experimental,' because I think it hints you don't know what you're doing and you're only fiddling around until you find something. I don't know what I'm doing until I get an idea and then I know exactly what I'm doing. And when you get an idea you have to remain true to it. I experimented more in 'The Straight Story,' which the critics considered my most traditional film, than I did in any other film that I directed. I fell in love with the emotion in the script and my challenge was to express that emotion by means of a plot that contains a very small number of elements and works according to a very direct narrative. In that film, I experimented more with the use of music than in any other film."

What does the term "mainstream" mean to you?

"Mainstream is what most people want to see, and I think there are directors who are lucky because what they like to do is what a lot of people like to see. At the same time, if you like to do something and no one wants to see it, that's also completely alright if you remain true to your idea and if what you did works, which is the most important thing. I also like to see a lot of the films that belong to the mainstream - I'm a human being."

Have you, over the years, discovered a connection between your films and classic Hollywood; for example, films by Alfred Hitchcock or Josef von Sternberg?

"There is nothing you can do today, in which you cannot find some sort of reference to what was done during more than 100 years of cinema. There's always some sort of connection to the past; but there is also always something new because the world is changing at such a fast pace and cinema is changing with it and constantly defining the historical moment in which it is produced."

Many of Lynch's films border on hallucination and fantasy. He maintains that distinctions between realistic and non-realistic cinema are vague, at best.

"Many of the films described as realistic are less realistic than films defined as abstract. I believe that realism is a subjective term; that realism, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. Cinema cannot capture realism in its perfection. It can only navigate within it and document parts of it. But it can expose deeper and deeper layers within them. That's why it's such a beautiful language."

What role does the story play within your films?

"First, there is desire for an idea, and then the idea comes. And the idea gives birth to the story, which, in my case, usually comes in fragments. I don't know the entire story, but I know that I fell in love with it. Other parts are gradually added, and if everything works correctly, there is finally a script. The script is like the blueprint of a house; it's not the house itself but the blueprint that guides your work. And while you are making the film, you get more ideas. Some of them are good and you add them to the film and some of them are also good but they don't suit the film you are making. So you write them down and wait to use them in another film. It's a wonderful process. That's also how the subject of the film works. I usually don't know what it is until I see the finished result. There are many people who work opposite the way I do."

Lynch is aware that viewers are often frustrated by their inability to follow the story line or decipher the meaning of his films. But he claims he is in the same boat: The meaning of some of the ideas in his films is a complete mystery to him as well, although he is intuitively aware that they have significance. "I believe that it is important that a director know the significance of what he is doing," he says, "but an aspiration to make a film that everyone understands is absurd."

Lynch says, "I rarely got an idea for a film from a dream that I dreamed. However, I do like the logic of dreams. I like the way that dreams work. I think it resembles the abstract ways in which cinema can work."

Are you interested in psychoanalysis?

"No. I think it's very good for people to talk about and analyze their problems, but I am interested in Transcendental Meditation."

Here, Lynch begins to preach the gospel of Transcendental Meditation: It hit him suddenly like a "white light" and he describes the great joy that a man can achieve if he learns to control its secrets.

You speak of great joy but your films are disconcerting and fraught with horror.

"That's what everyone says: 'If you are so happy, why do you make these dark films?' But the films are not all dark. They have darkness but also light. They have ups and downs. The stories are constructed from contradictions - otherwise the viewers of my films would be bored to death."

In "Blue Velvet," "Wild at Heart" and "Twin Peaks," you examined the American experience and exposed the darkness beneath its complacent facade. In "Mulholland Dr." and "Inland Empire" you focus on actors, cinema, mirrors and reflections that characterize the cinematic experience. Is this a new direction in your art?

"The moment you do more than one film on the same subject, the critics already claim there is a new direction in your art form. This happened because I live in Los Angeles - Los Angeles fascinates me. This is a city that operates on many levels. The people involved in the film industry enter studios and get swallowed into one reality and then leave and are swallowed into another reality."

Lynch, who worked in film and in television, believes the two media are identical except for the fact that television broadcasts on a small screen and its visual and acoustical quality is poor.

Despite that, you are attracted to it.

"I am attracted to the fact that on television you can tell a long, continuing story. But it's very frustrating work."

Would you like to direct for the Internet?

"Yes. Internet is the new television. I believe that if I got an idea in my head that was appropriate to Internet, that's where I would go. Internet provides you absolute freedom. That's big."