Tuesday, April 6, 2010

5 Things I Learned from David Lynch

Like most of mainstream America, my first exposure to the work of David Lynch came with the release of The Elephant Man, his first bigtime Hollywood production. Bankrolled by Mel Brooks, the film was striking and, except for the strange elephant-noise collage sequences, pretty straightforward in a narrative sense. It provoked a lot of discussion with my fellow high schoolers and I, for one, loved the use of black and white.

Next up was Dune, a film that came with a crib sheet handed out at the box office. I again enjoyed a lot of the visuals in the film and really dug the atypical soundtrack music by the (unfamiliar to me, because I am a nerd) rock band Toto. I’d tried to read the novel Dune several times in high school and never made it past, oh, 1/3 of the way into the book. I was therefore startled when nearly the entire film consisted of ideas and scenes that I’d read in the novel. I guess that’s why the SciFi Channel ended up doing a miniseries version years later.

Then came Blue Velvet. So disturbing. So strange. So wonderful. I loved it. And when I read (in Rolling Stone, trying to temper my nerdosity) a couple years later that Lynch was developing a new TV series, I couldn’t wait to see it.

Twin Peaks absorbed my thoughts and attention in a way no other TV show had since, I don’t know, Star Trek when I was a kid. And I couldn’t wait to see Wild at Heart upon its release. I’d become a Lynch junkie. I sought out his Industrial Symphony. I spent hours listening to Julee Cruise. I baked pies. I considered drinking 14 cups of coffee a day, as he reputedly did. I thought of ways to come up with images and scenes that were seemingly tangential to the main scope of a piece.

By the time Twin Peaks, well, peaked, I’d come down from my Lynch high and the Twin Peaks movie Fire Walk With Me didn’t help restore the luster. I saw and enjoyed (if it’s actually possible to say you “enjoyed”) Lost Highway but I haven’t seen any of his other, later films.

But those critical years also taught me a lot about the nature of creativity.

  1. Read the Art Spirit by Robert Henri. This book was mentioned by Lynch a couple of times in interviews, so I sought it out. It’s addressed primarily to visual artists, painters, but there is so much in there that applies to the creative process in general. I gave away my first copy to another writer I thought would appreciate it. The takeaway message I got from Henri was about focus, about paying attention to the moment, of fully investing yourself in the creation of a work. Be there, let it flow out and don’t second guess and rearrange and fret. Let it flow. I should probably read it again soon.
  2. Diversify. Lynch is a writer, director, painter, sculptor and musician. He works in film, television, stage and galleries. He hits and misses. He doesn’t put all his eggs in one basket. He lets his muse tell him which way a particular idea should be expressed. He lets it flow. Again with the flow.
  3. Put a fish in the percolator. One of the strangest and most wonderful moments in early Twin Peaks comes from Pete, the odd fellow who first discovers the body of Laura Palmer. Pete offers Agent Cooper some coffee and, just as Cooper takes a sip, Pete warns him not to drink it – “There was a fish in the percolator.” It’s an image that makes you laugh and then makes you try to figure out why there would be a fish in a percolator. It’s nonsensical and, quite possibly, the first time that phrase has ever been uttered anywhere in any language. Lynch creates unique moments that, with one line, can define a character. Doesn’t this say everything we might want to know about Pete? Stuck with a scene? Stick a fish in the percolator. Or find out what the log has to say.
  4. Damn good coffee – and hot! Yes, this is more Twin Peaks, but that whole coffee and pie thing helped reinforce that idea of living in the moment, of trying to fully appreciate where you are and what you are doing. Sip that coffee, smell it, spit it out if it’s too hot. And don’t just eat the pie, savor it. And don’t forget to thank the person who brought it to you.
  5. Go to extremes. Some of the creepiest moments in an already creepy film come when Willem Dafoe’s head separates from his body in Wild at Heart. And a dog walks off with a hand.  And both these moments are actually funny. I remember laughing and laughing when I saw the film. It’s okay to go to absurd lengths very once in a while. Wrap a girl up in plastic. Go ahead and start your film by tunneling underground to see ants, thus making explicit the implicit idea of your film. Don’t be afraid. Go where you need to go.


Unknown said...

I have to admit, several times I've had to ask myself, "Am I a David Lynch fan or a Mulholland Dr. fan?" I see that you haven't seen it yet, which is something you should remedy! In the end, I have to come down on the side of Lynch, because although I was disappointed by some of his (maybe over-hyped) films, but hesitate to fault him for going overboard. I think that's the "flow" you refer to in your post. Also, a Lynch movie really calls into question what "entertainment" is.

I know we talked about David Foster Wallace a few weeks ago and he has a pretty interesting quote about Lynch:

You almost never from a Lynch movie get the sense that the point is to “entertain” you, and never that the point is to get you to fork over money to see it. This is one of the unsettling things about a Lynch movie: You don’t feel like you’re entering into any of the standard unspoken and/or unconscious contracts you normally enter into with other kinds of movies. This is unsettling because in the absence of such an unconscious contract we lose some of the psychic protections we normally (and necessarily) bring to bear on a medium as powerful as film. That is, if we know on some level what a movie wants from us, we can erect certain internal defenses that let us choose how much of ourselves we give away to it. The absence of point or recognizable agenda in Lynch’s films, though, strips these subliminal defenses and lets Lynch get inside your head in a way movies normally don’t. This is why his best films’ effects are often so emotional and nightmarish.

J'Mel said...

I love Lynch- too much to type it all out on the phone, but trust me... true love.
I remember telling a friend that asked my thoughts on Inland Empire "I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy... but I love it."
Its not just blind devotion, its watching a man take a medium that more or less has had its rules set for 70 years... just not give a flying ^%$#.
So much so, that when YOU try not to give a flying %$#% its called "Lynchian"
How many people get to define a genre- and make it stick? If you really, REALLY want to bask in the mans calculated insanity I suggest the mystery disc of the Lime Green Set.
It be's being unforgettable...

tracyshaun said...

You should check out Catching The Big Fish, a little book by Mr. Lynch that collects little aphorisms, meditations, reflections, short 2-page essays. He has some really great things to say about creativity and a lot of interesting tidbits about his past projects.

John Kenneth Muir said...

Great post. I really enjoyed reading this thumbnail guide to Lynch, and got a good laugh out of the fish in the percolator. I had forgotten all about that, but I appreciate the way you use it as a metaphor for larger things.

Well done!

John Kenneth Muir