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Not Just Kooky

Niall James Holohan writes: David K Lynch was born in Missoula, Montana on January 20th, 1946. His next birthday then will be his seventy-third. For over forty of those years Lynch has been producing controversial and innovative films which have earned him the status of one the most essential directors of all time. 

In his new memoir, Room To Dream, written in collaboration with art curator Kristine McKenna, Lynch seeks to reveal the obsessions which have sustained him through his life and kept him engaged in creative work even when pursuing interests away from cinema; apart from his film work, Lynch has also found solace in painting, music, photography and in various other areas. Obsessive in its exploration of the creative process, this new book from Canongate continues the ground-breaking tradition of Lynch the filmmaker’s previous work and the result is an impressive inside look at the mind of a visionary.

As a child, Lynch moved, or rather was moved, around a lot. In fact his family had changed location over six times by the time he was fourteen and it is clear from the start that he believes being moved around against one’s will in such formative years had a long-lasting effect of him. I was moved around a lot as a child too and would concur that it’s the kind of experience that promotes distrust for education and makes a person capable of being amenable to most but unwittingly elusive in attempts to truly connect with others. This may sound like a bad thing and arguably, on a personal level, it is something that must be overcome, but in the early chapters of Room To Dream Lynch suggests it afforded him a unique fearlessness in his search for the sacred fire or “the eye of the duck” as he enigmatically calls it.The name David Lynch is almost synonymous with the unexpected, and so it is unsurprising that what may, at first, seem like two books tangled into one soon emerges as a welcome departure from the average artist’s journal, with the biographical side of the story, told by Lynch himself, illuminating critical essays on his work by McKenna. Lynch is comfortable in new territory and this unique approach serves to illustrate some of the key dualities produced by choosing a life as an artist. In fact, we proceed by being asked to look at how early experience, interpreted as a catalytic event at a key stage of self-creation emerges within an artistic context. 

In his late teens and early twenties, Lynch dreamed of being a painter and considered Dublin-born artist Francis Bacon a hero, albeit an inaccessible one. This section of the book held particular interest for me because it attempts to acknowledge the dual vision of Lynch as a young artist. On one hand, he shared the sensibilities of a fellow abstract surrealist but on the other, the depth of isolation and existential despair he admired in Bacon’s work was not something he felt equipped to match as a painter. In fact, it was while studying painting at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia that Lynch made the transition from brushes to rushes and it’s clear from the stories and essays related to this period that an instinctive resilience triggered in his childhood and nurtured in art school sustained him in this leap of faith. It is not difficult to see how the same intuitive pliancy provided the intellectual scaffolding required to persevere through a career marked by an unwillingness to compromise and celebrated for its singular vision. There are many examples of this. For instance, McKenna invites us to imagine the willpower it takes to spend five years getting Eraserhead made when the original screenplay for the film was just twenty-one pages long.

It’s here perhaps that I need to pause and concede that while you could be forgiven for thinking that surely only an eccentric, in the most extreme and unfathomable sense of the word, would commit so much time and energy to twenty-one pages of unprecedented surrealist horror the image of Lynch as simply a kooky man is exactly the kind of myth Room To Dream seeks to demolish, while employing that same sense of stoic irony that informs much of Lynch’s oeuvre.

This unexampled and arguably unrivalled body of work includes the seminal film and TV productions of course and both Lynch himself, in his Proust-like entries, and McKenna, through her analytic essays, reveal many wonderful nuggets for the expectant aficionado. I was fascinated to learn that my favourite Lynch film, Mulholland Drive, started life as a TV pilot for ABC and that Lynch was offered the director’s chair on both Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Return of the Jedi. There are also gratifying allusions to the so-called lesser work, but we are encouraged to consider the extra-curricular creative interests Lynch has engaged in, like the “I like to kill deer” ringtone, the cameos in both Louie and as the voice of Gus on The Cleveland Show and a welcome reminder that Lynch once animated a regular Lennonesque “funny” for the Village Voice called “The Angriest Dog in the World”.

Even the more commercial ventures, like promos directed for Michael Jackson, Armani and PlayStation, are treated with esteem alongside heartfelt affirmation of the depth of feeling Lynch clearly has for transcendental meditation, a practice which he confesses helped assuage an acute rage he found difficult to shift as a young man. All of this, alongside a lucid memory of life events considered key to his development as an artist point toward a deeply serious person who is unafraid to be interested in whatever it is that holds his attention. His obsessions, however, are not fleeting but persist throughout his work and yet often the subject matter has been overlooked by most people; certainly the way in which they are illustrated is unique to Lynch. This is the heavier, more academic side of Room To Dream, but the book itself does not weigh on the reader. In fact, just when you think it might be getting too reflective for its own good you are hit with another wonderful story to make you laugh and reconsider who David Lynch really i: staid artist and intense filmmaker or mischievous eagle scout?

In ancient Chinese philosophy, the yin and yang are figures illustrate how ostensibly antagonistic forms may, in fact, produce and rely on one another. Much like David Lynch's artistic work, Room to Dream explores many of the ambiguous dualities of life. Many who write about Lynch often focus on his interest on life’s dark side ‑ when that may only be one side of the story. Think about it. Collaboration is not generally considered a move that would be seen as consistent with the autocratic vision of the stereotypical auteur and so it’s surely with that same keen sense of flattened affect that Lynch has not chosen to tackle his memoir alone. The upshot is that we get a disarmingly sincere look at Lynch in a way that serves to debunk some of the myths about him and his work, the most rampant of which is of course that he is simply a peculiar fellow obsessed by the dark underbelly of human experience. From Twin Peaks, through The Elephant Man, Blue Velvet and others, it is widely acknowledged that Lynch has broken televisual and cinematic ground via model meditations on the inexplicable strangeness of everyday life, but in addition to his filmography, Lynch boasts a fascinating discography and since his years in university has also been the centrepiece of solo art exhibitions all over the world. So while there is little doubt that he enjoys and exploits the fact that he is considered restless and weird by mainstream standards, it is clear from Room To Dream that like most artists he considers the lowest common denominator that dictates the location of the middle of the road nothing any self-respecting adult should aspire to. It occurs to me that this enigmatic space is one few dare to recognise and fewer still choose to live and work in.

My first encounter with David Lynch was with his more obviously reflective, transcendental side. It was while working behind the counter of a DVD rental shop in the early 00s and I’m glad to say it was as strangely soothing and out of step with the workaday world as you might hope. The previous evening had turned into a late night for me but a colleague of mine must have had an even later one because at 7am on my day off, I was called to open the store. We all know the feeling. Like a pawnshop Dante, I got there with one minute to spare, slid the security blind into the housing, knocked the bouquet of TVs on and popped in a new movie rated G called The Straight Story. Typically, Saturday mornings were dead so, still tired and emotional, I lay on my back on the floor of the video vault, listening to the Angelo Badalamenti’s remedying opening theme to what some call David Lynch’s most conventional film. I must have nodded off. When the shop bell rang to let me know someone had entered the store, it was a policeman asking me what I had seen. Lights swirled and people looked panicked outside. There had been a full-scale armed robbery of the jewellers next door and yet, I hadn’t heard or seen a thing. As the policeman gesticulated wildly and scolded me for being apathetic ‑ as opposed to simply unconscious ‑  over his shoulder Lynch’s Alvin Straight slowly rode a gently coughing lawnmower across Wisconsin. I had been introduced to the work of David Lynch in the most apt way; surreptitiously and while my guard was down and I wasn’t working this kind of day job for much longer.

What I mean to illustrate is that I am sympathetic to those who find Lynch eccentric in the extreme but I would put that down to a lack of exposure to his spiritual side. In 2006, Lynch wrote a book called Catching the Big Fish: Meditation, Consciousness, and Creativity and until the release of Room To Dream this was arguably the best companion to his work. For those who care to dig deeper, Room To Dream reveals a familiar thread of interest in the subversive, albeit a suitably elusive one which underlines his contention that all of his work and creative interests are fuelled by spiritual reflection.

Perhaps the most succinct way to explain the vitality of this book for both the Lynch fan and the cinephile is that it asserts that he has never made things surreal or indeed made surreal things. That is evident, but in Room To Dream Lynch and McKenna suggest that there is a flip side and that Lynch’s vision is far more about revealing what is already surreal about the world itself if only we look at it plainly enough, from that ambiguous space between what it considered normal and what is not. From this transcendent perspective, any kind of rivalry and strife is absurd and so, as Lynch sits, daydreaming about passers-by in one of his in much-loved LA coffee shops, he admits what he sees is people perpetually struggling with unnecessary strife. Whether you agree with this perspective or not is of little consequence. Especially when you realise that it is authentically Lynch’s world view and Room To Dream, as his latest creative endeavour, is an attempt to argue that even though this perspective is bound to be first processed as ironic or strange, he is serious when he suggests that dreams are the antidote to conflict. It would be very difficult to argue that the personal prose and academic analyses effectively entwined in the book do not aptly describe what it’s like to be captivated by one’s dreams and have those dreams encouraged. What is most remarkable, however, is that like most of Lynch’s work, this unique book does not simply suggest we consider the adversarial nature of things but asks do we dare transcend contention and dream. After all, isn’t transcendence the stuff dreams are really made of?

Room to Dream, by David Lynch and Kristine McKenna, is published by Canongate

26/11/2018

Niall James Holohan is a musician and writer, a student of psychology at the University of East London and film studies at the University of Cambridge, where he is currently completing a research project on the representation of gender in cinema. He has previously contributed to Film Ireland, the LA Review of Books and The Psychologist. See www.nialljholohan.com